Rhinos have the focus to help Cummins bow out on high note

ONE person who may not feature on the celebration pictures if Leeds Rhinos do win the Carnegie Challenge Cup as evening descends on north London today is Francis Cummins.

His absence will be nothing to do with modesty, shyness, or the wishes of others but more a desire to see – in its entirety – the fruits of his labour over the last five years.

Cummins has not spent more than half his life at Headingley solely because of the need to work, it has been his passion, making his imminent departure all the more poignant.

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However, since retiring at the end of 2005, ending his illustrious one-club playing career early due to injury, he has continued at Leeds as an assistant coach and proved just as effective in that role as he did as a winger of some repute.

The likeable lad from Dewsbury's St John Fisher has helped to evolve that squad into a machine that has won three consecutive Super League titles and twice conquered the world.

The only thing Cummins has not overseen is a Challenge Cup win, unable to mirror what he did himself as a player as part of Leeds' 1999 vintage.

Warrington stand in the way as the side he has at times both cajoled and lectured, taught and disciplined, looks to end its horrendous losing run in the most famous competition of all.

Defeats against Bradford in 2000 and three years later – both of which Cummins suffered while playing – and once more versus Hull in Cardiff in 2005 has left the club desperate to lift the coveted trophy.

If they do, Cummins the coach will simply stand back and smile. "I think it's better now," he said, looking over the Wembley turf at yesterday's traditional walkabout and explaining his match-day emotions.

"While you're in it and playing, you go from a big win to the next game but now the greatest feeling for me is to just sit and watch the team.

"After a Grand Final, I watch their reactions diving about on the photos. People ask me why I'm not in them but I'd rather just stand next to the cameras and watch because that's the end product of what could be a career's worth of hard work.

"Don't get me wrong – I've had my time, my celebrations and that feeling – but it's great just to see the look on peoples' faces and I hope to be seeing it on Saturday."

It is his first time at the new Wembley but he points almost instinctively to the place where previous dramas unfolded at the old stadium.

He holds the record for the youngest player to play in the Challenge Cup final when he featured against Wigan in 1994 aged 17 years and 200 days, scoring a memorable long-distance try.

He was there again 12 months later against the same exulted opponents and another defeat.

It was in 1999 when Cummins finally secured his sole winners' medal, part of the side led by a similarly youthful Iestyn Harris that eventually overpowered a London Broncos team featuring ageing ghosts of Wigan past, Shaun Edwards and Martin Offiah.

"It was my third time playing there and I remember people asking about passing on my experience," said Cummins.

"But I was still only 23. A Wembley verteran yet still 23."

Leeds overcame a nervous first half to storm home with winger Leroy Rivett collecting a record-breaking four tries and clinching the Lance Todd Trophy.

"That was not really how we played either," recalled Cummins. "We tended to go right to left but that day it was the other way and Leroy came up with some great scores.

"Ryan Sheridan was outstanding. He saved us twice and was huge not only at the final but in the semi as well.

"Graham Murray sat us down at half-time after we'd been struggling and settled us. When you look at our bench – Andy Hay and people like that – we knew once we got going we'd get into them."

Leeds' call in times of need that year was '78' in reference to the last time the club had tasted success at Wembley.

Cummins, the seventh highest try-scorer in Leeds' history with 188, said: "We knew how those players were still thought about around the club and we wanted to be like that, too.

"We had a group of players to do it. We'd just lost out in the Grand Final the year before but it was a big relief in the end.

"For me, it was third time lucky. I'd got that winners' medal and lifted the Cup but it was huge for the club; Leeds had always been big-spenders and under-achievers but we moved the club forward."

Just like this year, Leeds had knocked out some high-profile teams along the way – Wigan, St Helens, Widnes and Bradford – and it is strange to think one of Cummins's team-mates that day, Adrian Morley, 33, will be playing for the Wolves today.

"Me and Moz are actually the same age," he said. "He came of age in '99 after missing out in '95.

"People forget Kev (Sinfield) was in that '99 squad, too, but was only 18 and never expected to make the final cut.

"He did in 2000 and that was disappointing for him to miss out again but it was part of his education and we're seeing the benefits of it over these last few years.

"I've been in his situation, too, as was Barrie McDermott in the 2005 Challenge Cup. That's probably been the highlight of what's gone on in the last few years; people have missed out on finals whether through injury or not being selected but it's always been what is best for the team."

As Leeds made their final preparations, Cummins concluded: "They've just got to focus on what's between those two big sets of posts.

"They can control that and it's good to be here, just 20-odd lads who have been knocking around Kirkstall so many years, training in snow and in rain for this.

"Now they're here and relaxed. They're ready for it."

For simply the best coverage of today's final at Wembley don't miss our Challenge Cup final special pull-out, free inside Sports Monday.