This Saturday the Super League reaches its conclusion as St Helens take on Wigan Warriors at the theatre of dreams, Old Trafford. Heavy favourites and tipped by most pundits, Wigan will be confident of retaining the trophy they have won three times since the inaugural Grand Final in 1998 when they beat Leeds 10-4.
After two fantastic victories in the play offs – the first a comprehensive slaying of Huddersfield, the second a last minute smash and grab over Warrington – Wigan’s tails will be up. It has been an interesting season for the Warriors. There were some fantastic opportunities for them to take a strangle hold on top spot throughout the year. A seeming inability to win in Yorkshire cost them dearly. As it happened St Helens took the League Leaders Shield, and Wigan finished the regular season in second.
Shaun Wane is a driven coach, one who does not accept losing. So coming second to his biggest rivals will have hurt his pride. But a wounded animal is often the most dangerous, and his troops have taken no prisoners in these play offs. They have come through some tough matches relatively unscathed – Michael McIlorum’s heavy facial knock aside which Wane has confirmed will not keep him out of Saturday’s showpiece- and Wigan’s team picks itself.
They have the best half back partnership in the league and it’s hard to see how a six and seven of Blake Green and Matty Smith’s calibre can be matched. Their kicking game is the strongest in the league, and in Green, they have one of the bravest stand offs around. His man of the match performance in Wigan’s record comeback victory over Warrington in last year’s Grand Final defied the odds as he played on with a fractured eye socket picked up early in the match.
Matty Bowen has been hitting some of the form he showed in the NRL, and despite a wobble in the semi-final win over Warrington, has the experience of having played in some of the biggest games in the world. Joe Burgess and Josh Charnley on the wing have been in tremendous form this season when fit. Burgess especially, scoring nineteen tries in his debut season. The centre pairing of Dan Sarginson and Anthony Gelling have been a revelation. Both play a great brand of off the cuff rugby league, and Sarginson has more than deserved his nomination for Young Player of the Year.
Wigan’s forward pack is one of the hardest and most mobile around. The front three of Ben Flower, McIlorum and Dom Crosby can cause some serious damage. The big units of Flower and Crosby are nicely backed up by Tony Clubb and John Bateman. Expect plenty aggression in both attack and defense. McIlorum can back up these yards with some scything runs from dummy half. Not to mention contribute with his own brand of Yorkshire aggro.
Despite all this though, it’s in their back rowers that Wigan are the strongest. It is quite conceivable that come the Four Nations all three of England’s back rowers could be Wiganers. All pie eaters born and bred Liam Farrell, Joel Tomkins and Sean O’Loughlin grew up dreaming of pulling on Wigan’s famous cherry and white. They are versatile strong runners who can tackle anything that moves. Farrell and Tomkins can play like centres at times, and give Wigan an extra strike pair of hands down each flank. Whilst O’Loughlin is probably the best loose forward in the world. It was his brave decision not to go for another one pointer and to attack the Warrington line late on in the semi-final, a decision vindicated by Burgess’ late score. Not only is the bloke a defensive machine, he has the hands of a stand-off and can give Wigan an extra half back. St Helens have it all to do.
In recent years, always the bride’s maid and never the bride, it’s easy to forget Saints are the second most successful club of Super League, behind Leeds Rhinos. But painful memories of defeats will haunt them. Wigan on the other hand have won every major final they have been involved in since 2004 – Including 2010s success over St Helens. Success runs through every element of Wigan, as proved by their Under 19s winning their sixth Grand Final in seven years this week.
I do fancy Wigan by 6-12 points in what should be a cracking final. But like in all derbies, you just never know!