It’s the First Utility Super League Grand Final. The decider. It’s at Old Trafford and it kicks off at 6pm on Saturday. No different to any other year then? Well frankly, yes it is and here’s why.
Saturday marks the end of the Super League careers of three giants of the game. Kevin Sinfield will lead out the Leeds Rhinos for the last time in what is his 528th rugby league appearance. His former Great Britain and England captain Jamie Peacock will lead the pack in what is his 500th and final match, while Kylie Leuluai, an under-the-radar signing from Manly in 2006, will bring the curtain down on his career as one of the most successful imports to have graced the British game.
Standing between them and a fairytale end are Wigan Warriors. The Warriors, beaten finalists last year after the second minute dismissal of Ben Flower, have regrouped well in 2015. Shaun Wane, who himself played for both clubs, is Wigan through and through and his exacting standards appear to have been observed for the most part by his squad, who missed out only narrowly on the League Leaders Shield due to Ryan Hall’s dramatic late score for the Rhinos at Huddersfield two weeks ago.
Only points difference separated the two teams over the course of 30 Super League and Super 8s matches, it was that close, while in four previous outings this year the score is 2-2, Leeds winning both their home games and the Warriors scoring both at home and also at Magic weekend.
Brian McDermott’s Leeds, of course, go into the Grand Final aiming for what would be an unprecedented treble for the club, having hammered Hull KR 50-0 in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final in addition to that League Leaders Shield success. That Wembley decider underlined the Rhinos’ enviable ability to get it right on the big occasions, to reserve their most clinical performances for the big stage. Well, sometimes.
Leeds, of course, have never beaten Saturday’s opponents in any final in six previous attempts. Equally as amazing is the fact that these two great and hugely successful clubs have only played each other so few times in deciders.
All of them have come since 1982. The Rhinos probably came as close to winning any of them in the inaugural Grand Final of 1998, going down 10-4 as Jason Robinson scored the decisive try, while in their only other meeting at Old Trafford, they came out on the end of a humiliating Premiership Final defeat by a record score of 69-12. History, therefore, is very much against the Rhinos, but there is a bigger picture with this Leeds side.
They will try – and rightly so – to play without emotion in this game. That will be difficult, but playing ‘big game football’ with an extra dollop of emotion won’t do any of them any harm as they try to find a way to beat the Warriors. They are renowned for rewriting history, which they are going to need to do on Saturday.
Think of 2011 and 2012, when they did what seemed impossible, first winning the trophy from fifth place and then, astonishingly, repeating the feat 12 months later.
This Leeds side is filled with record breakers. Danny McGuire – Super League’s all-time leading tryscorer; Kevin Sinfield, the competition’s all-time leading appearance holder, goalkicker and points scorer; Tom Briscoe, scorer of a record five tries in a Wembley final; Adam Cuthbertson with a record number of offloads in a season for any player; the team itself with its record number of Grand Final wins and record winning margin at Wembley.
After over a decade of success, the club now finally has a Man of Steel in fullback Zak Hardaker, while Ryan Hall remains as potent-a-threat as there is out wide and in Joel Moon and Kallum Watkins, they have arguably the best centre pairing in the Northern Hemisphere. And we haven’t even mentioned previous Old Trafford match winners Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, or Carl Ablett!
They should, and will, have immense respect for their opponents, who feel that they have unfinished business in Manchester after last year’s reverse. If Flower is able to keep a lid on things – and Leeds are sure to test his mettle early – then that will help their cause. He has learned a lot in the past 52 weeks.
Then there is Sean O’Loughlin, Warriors talisman and an absolute trojan in the engine room, ready to inspire his team to one more huge effort. His role takes on even greater significance in that his presence allows England half-back Matty Smith more freedom to play his own game too.
Stand-off George Williams is a precocious talent. The apprentice, up against the master Sinfield, and one who despite suggestions to the contrary from his coach, is felt by many to be in pole position for the no.6 shirt for England in their forthcoming series with New Zealand.
Micky McIlorum, a Leeds lad who missed last year’s defeat due to a fractured cheekbone, is an uncompromising hooker who will try to get the Rhinos off their game, while the Warriors also have some fantastic attacking threat through wingers Joe Burgess and Dom Manfredi – the latter showing such good form that he has kept England winger Josh Charnley out of the final line-up.
Matty Bowen – the former Queensland fullback – is another to be turning out for the final time and he showed against the Rhinos at the DW Stadium earlier in the season just how dangerous he is with ball-in-hand if allowed any space.
The physicality and structure of Wigan against the big-game know-how, offloading forwards and silky-skilled three-quarters of the Rhinos. It promises to be a titanic duel between the two best teams in the competition this year. There will be heroes, maybe villains, and there will be a moment – one moment out of 80 lung-bursting minutes – where someone will come up with the vital score that etches their name into rugby league history for all time.
And it isn’t just the men wearing cherry-and-white who are warriors. Every manjack who steps out on the field, puts their body on the line, gives every last breath, is fit for that title.
History is with Wigan. Sentiment is with Leeds. Which will the Gods of rugby league favour? One thing is certain. One way or another, come 8pm on Saturday there won’t be a dry eye in the house.