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Too close to call

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George Riley George Riley | 06:56 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010

Whisper it quietly in Yorkshire but Wigan against St Helens is probably the Super League Grand Final most people wanted.

When I say "most", I obviously exclude fans of Leeds and Huddersfield, who were beaten by the Warriors and Saints in their respective play-off games last weekend.

Saturday's Old Trafford contest is certainly one for the romantics. Wigan against Saints is arguably the game's fiercest rivalry. They are the top two teams, too, having finished first and second in the table over the regular season.

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I was commentating at Headingley last Saturday and the growing frustration from the home fans in the South Stand made me wonder if we were watching the changing of the guard at Leeds.

Wigan's hungry young stars, brilliantly moulded into a formidable defensive beast by Super League coach of the Year Michael Maguire, devoured the vulnerable Super League champions after a flawless three-year reign.

Yet for all that hyperbole, these same Warriors who swept the board at the Man of Steel awards night know they may end the season with nothing.

Before the awards ceremony on Monday, I had spent Sunday afternoon in Warrington in the company of St Helens forward Jon Wilkin, who will attempt to deny Wigan the title this weekend and end his side's own run of three successive Grand Final defeats in the process, and Saints great Paul Sculthorpe.

We had popped along to the Co-operative Championship Grand Finals day at the Halliwell Jones to "entertain" the hospitality crowd as they tucked into their Sunday roast. Most of the talk was already about that Wigan-Saints showdown a week later.

Wilkin was nursing a badly swollen hand, having picked up the injury in that win over the Giants, and had to leave early for a scan to assess the damage. Before he departed, he told me no matter what the outcome he would be lining up at Old Trafford.

There were six sets of nervous players walking around Warrington on Grand Finals day - with the Conference and two Championship finals played back to back.

So how do players react to a day, like this weekend, when a whole season's work is judged over 80 minutes? If you have never experienced a Grand Final, let me tell you that you will never suffer nerves like it if you are supporting one of the teams involved.

"I'll be honest, I'm petrified before kick-off," Wilkin told me. "My mind goes a little bid mad so I do tend to sit there lost in my own thoughts.

"I'm one of those players who hates iPods, so I can't be doing with team-mates sitting there with earplugs in. As for Scully, he was the kind of player who would spend his time pre-match shaving his legs and making himself look beautiful!"

I asked the Saints pair if they were pleased Wigan were providing the opposition in the final rather than Leeds, who have proved their nemesis in the last three Grand Finals. Both agreed they would have wanted Saints to have another crack at the Rhinos.

"Wigan will be great because it's a derby but it will be tougher than facing Leeds because the Warriors are the best side this year," added Wilkin. "I wanted Leeds again. We could have beaten them and put talk of a hoodoo to bed."

Sculthorpe told me me he is a bad observer of big games like this and will not be going to Old Trafford this weekend, opting instead for a house party with his mates. But he still reckons Saints can prevail.

After our question and answer session, we sat down for a pre-match Sunday lunch. It was during this dinner that we were informed by a Rugby Football League representative that former Great Britain hooker Terry Newton had been found hanged, months after he had been handed a two-year ban for using a performance-enhancing drug.

It was an absolutely horrible moment. No-one spoke for a good few minutes, there were no words, just blank, pale empty stares. Sky Sports pundit Mike Stephenson went white as a sheet and pushed his meal to one side. Scully had to call his brother Danny, who lives just a couple of doors from Terry's house in Wigan and was great mates with the former Wigan hooker.

When the silence was broken, the discussion immediately focused on how it could have happened. Could the RFL have done more to support Terry after his drugs ban? Could the rugby league family have done more? Could any of us have actually known just how bad things were in Terry's mind?

On a personal note, it was also an afternoon where I hated being a journalist. This was real life, a horrendous tragedy affecting so many people I know. It was not a moment to be thinking if I should be contacting the office to alert them to a big story.

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There will be a minute's silence for 'Tez' at the Grand Final and I'm confident the two teams will produce the kind of contest fitting of the man the sport has lost: fearless, competitive and bruising.

Terry was a troubled man but a brilliant player. I hope that is how he will be remembered.

Saturday's match should be a blockbuster but there will be nerves on both sides. Wigan, like St Helens, have lost their last three Grand Finals, although the last of those defeats came in 2003.

So can Saints win it without the worryingly injury-prone Kyle Eastmond, or will Sam Tomkins run riot in his illuminous yellow boots?

Then there is the Keiron Cunningham factor. The Saints great signed off with the last ever try at Knowsley Road and is unlikely to leave Old Trafford quietly.

A quick straw poll of a dozen neutral Super League players via text message returned a 7-5 verdict in favour of Saints. Ask the bookies and Wigan are odds-on favourites.

I'm more than happy to take my place on the fence for this one as I can't call it. At the start of the week, I thought Saints - with Cunningham, Paul Wellens and James Graham - would be too wily, too clever for the still inexperienced Tomkins brothers. Now I'm wondering whether that Wigan youth could provide too much sparkle for Saints.

What's your view?


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm a Saints fan and think this Grand Final will be a classic. Where Saints have the edge in the pack (and I still can't get used to saying that!) the Pie-eaters have the edge in the backs (ditto).

    There are heroes and sublime talent on both sides of the park and it's only fitting that the 2 best sides in the competition contest the final.

    The deciding factors will be the mistakes made whoever makes the most will lose, the next will be Big-match experience and here is where Saints have the edge after making their 5th GF on the trot. (I hope)

    Then of course, we have Keiron's scriptwriter. Whatever can they have lined up for K.C.'s swansong? Golden point drop goal? On the basis of what we've seen the last 3 weeks - you can't rule it out.

    The final word is for the author of the blog - THANK YOU GEORGE! I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog throughout the season and well done for your most overt advocacy for RL on 5-live. Keep it up and enjoy the off season (after the 4-nations of course!)

  • Comment number 2.

    My daughter and I are committed Wigan fans and are really looking forward to the match on Saturday. This will be the first Final we have been to and we are really excited at the prospect of a great game.

    We have seats up in the 'Gods' but as we expect to be in Heaven on Saturday evening, it is probably the best place to be.

    Before even a ball has been kicked or a pass made, this match has already reached amazing peaks in emotion. Lets make this a match and an occasion that Terry would be proud of.

  • Comment number 3.

    Nice blog George. Terry Newton was a no-nonsense totally committed kind of player and judging from the 606 boards has a lot of bad feeling towards him from some Saints fans so I hope for his family's sake the minutes silence is respected. I'm sure it will be by the players including Gilmour who has far more reason to hold a grudge than the Saints fans.

    I had a feeling for the Challenge Cup final between Warrignton and Leeds that one side could blow the other off the park because they were both so attacking but I just don't see there being much between Wigan and Saints. Had Eastmond and/or Pryce been fit I think Saints would win but I'm reminded of how one dimensional they were without either player against Leeds in the Challenge Cup semi so I think it will be tough for them (although they obviously have Matty Smith in good form). I think Francis Meli will be a target as despite being a fantastic player he has made critical errors in the past few Grand Finals that have turned the games against the Saints at a crucial stage.

    Wigan looked fantastic in defence against Leeds but the Rhinos didn't have their striking support players like Mcguire that makes them dangerous. Saints even without Eastmond I think will ask more questions and as they showed against Huddersfield I think they have the ability to crack the hardest defences. The wet weather will mean a forward type dominated game and I just think Saints with James Graham and Tony Puletua (apologies for spelling) have the edge there, even if Wigan with Sam Tomkins have the edge in the backs.

    My prediction (for what it's worth) is Saints to win 19-12.

  • Comment number 4.

    The key factor will be the weather. If it rains it will benefit Saints. Ironically, against Leeds in the previous finals, the weather has benefitted Leeds

  • Comment number 5.

    Weather forcast at the moment is for dry, sunny intervals ;)

  • Comment number 6.

    Good blog...

    anyone going can make it a day of good rugby league. A Bury Broncos v Bolton Mets derby at 12.30 leaving plenty of time to go to the GF after...

    Your GF George knows a number of our (Bury) players from school days I believe

  • Comment number 7.

    I just hope the minutes silence for Newton is observed properly by Saints fans, whatever people thought about things off the field, I agree with you George, he was an awesome player and should be remembered as such.

    As Eastmond scored all St Helen's points in their defeat last year, I just think his absence will hurt Saints more than they are letting on - it could have been a different story had McGuire played for Leeds last week too.

    And this is why I think it will be Wigan's year, sometimes champions need abit of luck, and with strike players such as McGuire and Eastmond both missing when it matters most, I fancy Michael Maguire to lead Wigan to GF success in his first I would love him to take over at FC!!

  • Comment number 8.

    great read, to echo the the first comment, been a pleasure reading your blogs all season! Im a wigan fan and will be there on saturday! I will say I'm a little bit nervous for saturday, purely because if the last 3 years are to go by, its not necessarily the best team that win the grand final, just the team that handles the pressure better. There will only be a handful of players from wigan who've played at old trafford before and it will be a test for Maguire to see if he can prepare the players for the event! The deciding factor I always think when teams of such high standard play is how many penalties are given away, ill-discipline is the cause for so many defeats in tight games!

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't think the final will be a "classic". Partly because Grand Final's rarely are but because I think Wigan will bring their normal game.

    All year, Wigan have done what they are good at. They play a very slow tempo, methodical, risk-averse game. They wait for a lapse in concentration from the opposition and then pounce. Nothing wrong with that if you're a Wigan fan, they're very effective at it, but not so great for the neutral.

    I'm hoping for a St Helens victory. Not because I'm a fan of them but because they will be the ones who try to play expansive, enterprising rugby.

  • Comment number 10.

    cant wait, so excited its gonna be a cracker.
    come on you saints!!!
    matty smiths kicking will be crucial, he needs to turn tomkins around as much as possible and the chase needs to be great every time, if he can do that and the chasers can limit his metres gained then Saints should take it, it wont be easy but I think everyone knows what will happen if there is just one try in it going into the last 5 minutes....Cunninghaaaam.

  • Comment number 11.

    quietly brickin' it.

    Never mind pretty-boy Wilkin being nervous. If we complete sets & keep hold of that damned ball then there's nothing between the two sides.

    Here's for a cheat-free match

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    Actually, I did mean on both sides.

    It never fails to amuse me that we're so reviled from all quarters for even breathing heavilly half the time.

    GET OVER IT for cryin' out loud.

    When any other team in RL is as hated as we are, then you have arrived. We just happen to been here for a long time.

  • Comment number 14.

    (and now that Floyd's comment has been removed by the thought police, my second little missive makes no sense - thanks BBC) :-)

  • Comment number 15.

    Great blog George..

    In reply to blog 3. Yes there have been some comments of ill feeling towards Newton but not all from Saints fans and a quick look at the Saints website shows a whole host of Saints fans showing sympathy, especially for his wife, kids and parents.

    I am sure the GF will be a fitting one.

    Now for the game itself. Most people are saying its too close to call and I agree although i will bethere hoping for a Wigan win. Alot of people saying Wigans inexperience could cost them, but Maguire has helped prepare Grand Final winning teams and if anything has shown that Wigan can take the emotion out of a situation.

    Hopefully will be a thrilling conclusion to one of the best seasons Superleague has witnessed.

  • Comment number 16.

    Not sure why you say someone from Yorkshire wouldn't want this final?
    After all it is the two top teams which is the way it should be.

  • Comment number 17.

    Paul - surely that is explained in the 2nd sentence? You think fans of Leeds and Hudds wanted a Wigan-Saints final??

  • Comment number 18.

    Yes George but as Leeds and Huddersfield were fairly comprehensively beaten, 6-26 and 42-22 I don't think they can complain! My team Rovers were beat 42-18, but if the Grand Final is what is says on the tin it should be the best two teams and that is what we have got. Personally I think this is a fairly pointless exercise as the best team is the team who finished top, the tables don't lie. Anyway hope it's a cracker but I won't hold my breathe (re post 9)

  • Comment number 19.

    I must also echo the comments about your blog George.., It's been a great read throughout the season. Speaking of the terrible & tragic loss of Terry Newton - I too was completely shocked to hear the news on Sunday and especially the circumstances. I actually felt guilty for not knowing he had released a book! Anyway I think both sets of fans will honour him respectfully during the minutes silence, I know despite the comments that many a saints fan will be supportive looking at their comments on their clubs website. I saw many a fan getting a new replica shirt this week at a well known sports store in Wigan with his name printed on the back!

    As for the game; I hope its a classic and the best team wins, I think it will be super tight and low scoring with only a few points seperating the teams. As a Wiganer I want my team to triumph but as long as its a good contest I don't really mind, the fact that it will be a sell-out is a great advert for the sport and reward in itself. I've been to 2 other GF's, in which Wigan both lost to bradford (01 & 03), so I couldn't face another!!

    Finally what a great season! with the Four Nations still to come, ace!

  • Comment number 20.

    As others have said, great blog George. I've enjoyed reading it throughout the season.

    As a Saints fan I'm hoping for a Saints win today but after three consecutive losses, an inexperienced halfback pairing (whichever form it takse) and Meli on the wing no doubt, my hope is only small! But I will be singing and shouting my team on in the belief that their backs against the wall attitude of the last few weeks can hold out for just one more game, and that we can kick into touch the last three years of misery!

    Come on you Saints!


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