Super League Grand Final: Wigan v St Helens 'will have same intensity despite no fans'

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent
Wigan fans
The familiar Cherry and White hoops and Red V will only be seen on the pitch at this year's final
Betfred Super League Grand Final: St Helens v Wigan Warriors
Venue: KCOM Stadium, Hull Date: Friday, 27 November Kick-off: 20:00 GMT
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Manchester; live text commentary on BBC Sport website; watch highlights on BBC Two at 17:00 GMT on Saturday, 28 November

Super League's Grand Final will feature two of the 13-man code's most intense rivals in what is undoubtedly the biggest match of the domestic season.

Reigning champions St Helens and Wigan - winners of the League Leaders Shield - share a neighbourly enmity that stretches back well over a century, one which gave rise to the sporting 'derby'external-link after the 19th Earl of Derby bestowed the fixture with his title.

But for the first time in history this clash of local rivals will be missing a vital ingredient that makes it one of the game's most charismatic occasions - the fans.

Instead of a seething, noisy full house that would have been expected at Old Trafford for this fourth Grand Final meeting between the two bitter enemies, it will be an echoing, empty KCOM stadium in Hull that greets the players when they walk out for the game.

"There's no shying away from it, it's going to be different," says Wigan skipper Sean O'Loughlin, a veteran of four Grand Final successes and who will be playing in his last game before retirement.

"Not having the opportunity to play at a stadium like Old Trafford is definitely something that people who haven't experienced it will miss out on."

That said, O'Loughlin says switching the match away from its traditional home is the right thing to do, and has no complaints about a cross-country trip to Hull for this game.

"To go to Old Trafford and not be in front of fans is not something you want to do," the 38-year-old added. "To have a neutral ground within Super League with no fans, it's not going to be great, obviously. But I think the boys have got used to that now.

"The boys have had enough practice to get to grips with it. The intensity is different, but the importance of the game is what will drive it on Friday."

Familiar focus for both sides

James Roby
James Roby is one of five survivors in the Saints match-day squad from their 2014 final triumph

St Helens skipper James Roby - who'll be playing in his ninth Grand Final - also says the experience will be strange.

But he believes that apart from a lack of fans, there will be a familiar focus from both sides in this 2020 finale.

"We all want fans there, but we've almost got used to playing without fans as the year has gone on," said the 35-year-old England and Great Britain hooker.

"It's our job to just get on with it. No matter where we play a Saints-Wigan derby, if it was over the field in a public park, you'd still get the same intensity out of the players.

"Whenever we've got a chance to create a little bit of atmosphere, or a little bit of volume amongst ourselves such as a try or a good tackle, or if someone has done something that needs rewarding, then we've got to do that."

'You shut off from the crowd when intensity is high'

Sean O'Loughlin
Sean O'Loughlin believes players shut out the crowd when they are 'in the zone' in games

Naturally there will be moments on Friday where the empty terraces of the KCOM will feel incredibly eerie; silent when it should be pulsing such as at kick-off and the arrival of the teams from the tunnel.

That said, O'Loughlin is convinced that once the match begins it will be normal service, even without the highly charged addition of the fanatical support that this rivalry normally stirs in the stands.

"At times you shut off from the crowd in those big games when the intensity is very high," he continued.

Previous Grand Final meetings
2000: St Helens 29-16 Wigan
2010: Wigan 22-10 St Helens
2014: St Helens 14-6 Wigan

"As much as the crowd add to that, sometimes when you're at that kind of level, where you're hanging in there and you're sucking the big ones in, you're almost in your own little bubble on the field. The more intense the game is, the less you are aware of the crowd at times.

"I'm expecting this to be a massive game. The game a few weeks back (when Wigan beat St Helens in the regular season) was one of the most intense we've seen this year, since coming out of lockdown, so I'm just expecting the same.

"Some of your more vocal players also come into their own in this scenario as well. You've got guys that will celebrate things going on in games more than others and I think they almost push that intensity a little bit and get the volume of the players going."

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