Warrington and Leeds set for Grand Final
The Grand Final is a unique occasion in that an entire season is defined over 80 minutes. Some say that is wrong - Wigan fans will feel aggrieved this year that they have ended up with nothing after finishing top of the pile. But what is undisputable is the drama that this system creates, and the adrenaline and tension that it will pump into Old Trafford on Saturday.
It looks like a perfect final. Defending champions against Challenge Cup winners for the first time.
Warrington coach Tony Smith, a Grand Final winner with Leeds, is bidding to become the first coach to win it with two different teams. Brian McDermott, a former assistant of Smith at Leeds, has guided the Rhinos to every single League and Cup final achievable since he took over two years ago.
It seems astonishing to think that just over 12 months ago, before Leeds' historic run to the title from fifth in the table, McDermott was being booed by sections of the Headingley crowd who wanted him to be sacked.
Realistically, there are only two days each season on which the world watches rugby league, and after Wembley this is the other. Yet this occasion always feels very different to the sport's other day in the limelight.
Whereas that is often an August rugby league festival with fans of all teams creating a kaleidoscope of colour and a Wembley wall of noise, the Grand Final is often a brutal bloodbath of nerves.
I've been nervous all week and I'm not even playing in it. Driving into work daily down empty roads at 5am through Stretford, Trafford and Salford Quays, seeing the big electronic road signs reading "Rugby Match Saturday 6pm: Expect Delays" has given me butterflies.
Warrington have already beaten Leeds in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley this season. Photo: Getty
I used to feel the same the night before big exams, wishing my grades could have instead been determined by coursework throughout the year. It always seemed unfair to judge a whole year's work on a single performance over a couple of hours. But that mixture of sickening jitters and "game day" adrenaline brings the best out of some people when there is no alternative but to knuckle down and do it.
So how on earth do Leeds keep finding their best answers in the final exam when their attendance throughout the year is so unpredictable? "I've no idea," coach Brian McDermott tells me. "But this is an incredible group of people who I feel incredibly honoured to work with."
Leeds' playoff performances have been remarkable and the Rhinos are 80 minutes away from winning the title from fifth place for the second successive year. That they have made Old Trafford again is down in no small part to captain Kevin Sinfield, who produced one of the most flawless games of rugby in knocking out Wigan last week that I have ever seen.
Sinfield will lead the Rhinos at Old Trafford for a record seventh time and always diverts the attention and praise that comes his way. He instead points to McDermott being the best coach he has ever played under. Sinfield won the Grand Final twice under Smith, remember, so that is some praise.
As for Warrington, so often the bridesmaids, they are fast becoming regulars at the rugby league altar, and Smith's leadership has been key. The former England coach has transformed talented under-achievers into much feared rugby league heavyweights who appear ready to create their own dynasty.
With Sinfield conducting the Leeds orchestra, Lee Briers is Warrington's puppet-master. The old magician has the same passion and box of tricks that he has always had, yet has developed a more mature head both with both age and Smith's guidance.
The battle upfront will again be key, with another Wolves veteran Adrian Morley playing in the Grand Final with a third different team.
Having lost with Leeds and won with Bradford, Moz will, at the age of 35, become the oldest ever player to appear in the Grand Final.
His legs may have slowed slightly but he still has the fire in his belly so expect Morley to lead from the front against Kylie Leuluai and co.
Danny McGuire's return from suspension for Leeds is huge. He dived over to win Leeds their first ever Grand Final in 2004 and eight years later he is in the form of his life.
A key battle out wide will be between England centres Kallum Watkins and Ryan Atkins. Watkins is a match winner for Leeds, with frightening pace, dazzling toes and real power for a centre.
Atkins, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength since being snubbed last year by England. A Leeds boy, the former Wakefield centre could have signed for the Rhinos when he left the Wildcats for Warrington but opted for primrose and blue over blue and amber. The pace and power have always been there but there is now a good rugby league brain inside that fearsome frame and he has developed into an outstanding try provider.
The Wolves are bidding to become the first team since St Helens in 2006 to do the double and will start as odds-on favourites. But having made Old Trafford a second home with five wins in seven visits, Leeds may feel they are inviting Warrington to their party.