Super League Grand Final: St Helens v Salford creates 'a frisson like never before'
|Betfred Super League Grand Final|
|Venue: Old Trafford Date: Saturday, 12 October Kick-off: 18:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Manchester, live text commentary on BBC Sport website, highlights at 17:00 BST on BBC Two on Sunday|
It is the most dominant side that Super League has ever seen against the most incredible story that Super League has ever seen.
And that is why there has been a frisson like never before in the build-up to the 2019 Grand Final.
St Helens finished top of the regular season table by a record-breaking 16-point margin, playing electrifying rugby all year.
Salford, pre-season relegation contenders for many, have produced a magical campaign of their own with an eye-catching style built on gutsy togetherness.
Each club can make a compelling case for attracting the neutral's support this year, because whoever lifts the trophy on Saturday will have recorded an extraordinary tale.
But you suspect the majority of the non-committed fans in Old Trafford will be learning the words to "Salford Reds Arisin" before taking their seats. Don't we love an underdog?
"We are bit of a motley crew of misfits," said Salford's Mark Flanagan, who won the Super League title with Saints in 2014.
"I say that with all respect to my team-mates, and I put myself in that category," he added.
"We're a team of players that have probably been discarded from other clubs for a variety of reasons - form, face not fitting, injuries, disciplinary reasons. But we've now had an arm put round us and (we've been) shown a purpose by the coaches."
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A chance to become legends
Throughout the season, Salford have given hints to what they might achieve. An incredible runaway victory at then high-flying Warrington in April and a narrow, controversial defeat at St Helens in May showed they were able to match any side on their day.
Nobody outside of their camp, though, would have realistically given them much chance of putting together a run of form like they have to make it to the season's finale.
Even when they finished third at the end of the regular campaign, the popular opinion would have been that they would be swamped by perennial play-off contenders such as St Helens, Warrington and Wigan.
But that big club snobbery has been given a bloodied nose. In each play-off game, Salford have looked increasingly self-confident with a commitment to match their collective talent.
They are categorised as underdogs because of their lack of recent fashionability. Theirs has been an annual scrap against financial crises, when gloom has never been too far away from full-blown doom. Even at the start of this year, when cash flow problems set in, the creditors began to circle.
They have not won a major honour since their most recent league title in 1976, and most years simply surviving as a club has been the reason to cheer.
But this year they should be celebrated as the real thing on the field. They have not bitten, scratched and scrapped their way into the Grand Final, like underdogs do. They have played their way to this point with a certain style.
Can this group of players climb one step higher and create for themselves legendary status in Salford's history?
Well, St Helens stand in their way, and they are terrific.
The big game hoodoo
Saints have probably not had the plaudits they truly deserve this year. They only lost three Super League games all season - bizarrely, two of those to relegated London when they rested several first-teamers.
They are a team of lip-smacking talents in every department. From full-back Lachlan Coote, who has added a balance and maturity to the side this year, all the way through to the front row of Alex Walmsley, the evergreen and ever-threatening James Roby and the devastatingly good Luke Thompson.
You can pick out just about any one of the St Helens side and make a case for them being world class.
Their style of play is gloriously easy on the eye. If you were taking someone to watch rugby league for the very first time, you would point them at this Saints team and say "that's how we like it".
But - and it is a "but" that hangs over the club like a metaphorical guillotine waiting to drop - in the past couple of years, they have lost their heads when it has mattered the most.
In terrace terms, they have bottled the big matches.
Two years ago, they lost their nerve in a golden-point extra-time shoot-out against Castleford in a play-off semi-final that ended their season.
Twice in semi-finals in 2018, they were pre-match favourites, only to be left desolate after dislocated performances - beaten in the Challenge Cup last four by Catalans and in the play-offs by Warrington.
This year, they almost choked before spluttering to a win over part-timers Halifax in the Challenge Cup, then were flattened by Warrington at Wembley.
So this team, as good as they are, loved and adored by their fans, respected by the rest of the game, can not claim 'greatness', because so far they have not won any of the so-called big prizes.
"That's what you've got to accept," said coach Justin Holbrook. "If you don't win things, it's natural. You are talking about facts here, not speculation. We hadn't got past a semi-final in the last few years."
But this time you sense that Saints really do mean business. Their focus seems absolute, self-doubts diminished.
The physical evidence of that was in the one play-off game they have had to play to reach this Grand Final.
Their performance in beating Wigan - in the first half especially - was as good as it is possible to be. Ruthless, energetic, beguiling, almost mistake-free; Wigan never had a look in.
That came on the back of their first week off this year. They have had another week off since. Determination redoubled.
Saints need to win for 2019 to be considered a success. Salford's season has already gone down as unforgettable, whatever happens on Saturday. That may be a factor in the final reckoning.
But we have learned this season to steer away from making predictions, so there will be no pronouncement of probable outcomes from this quarter.
Instead, sit back and enjoy what should be an incredible occasion, given the emotion that will be swirling around the Theatre of Dreams.
And, when it is all over, whoever wins, reflect on their extraordinary season.