Sean O'Loughlin and James Graham hope for last hurrah in Grand Final

Almost everything about Friday’s Super League Grand Final will feel different. The buzz of 70,000 fans at a near-capacity Old Trafford has been replaced with the slightly eerier atmosphere of a behind-closed-doors event at Hull’s KCom Stadium, but one overarching theme that has dominated recent finals will at least provide a sense of familiarity.

Grand Finals of late have been notable for some of the game’s most iconic names ending their careers with victory on the biggest stage. In 2015, the Leeds trio of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai won the Grand Final before retiring. Two years later, it was Rob Burrow who did the same, helping Leeds to victory against Castleford. And on Friday, one more great of the modern era will bow out with a winners’ ring: but equally, one will suffer the pain of defeat.

Sean O’Loughlin and James Graham’s careers have taken very different paths, but they will retire together this weekend as O’Loughlin’s Wigan take on Graham’s St Helens for the right to be crowned champions of a season the sport will never forget. In a year which has seen Super League battle Covid-19, the withdrawal of Toronto Wolfpack and yet more boardroom discontent, there is at least the opportunity to sit back and appreciate two legends one last time.

“It’s the right time,” said the 38-year-old O’Loughlin, who has captained Wigan and England with distinction. “Body-wise I’ve been aching for about five years and, mentally, now feels like the right time to do it and end on a high. You want to be contributing every week, and when you’re not doing that, you start to worry about whether you’re going to just fade away. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to finish with one more title.”

Wigan’s Sean O’Loughlin said: ‘Body-wise I’ve been aching for about five years and, mentally, now feels like the right time to do it and end on a high.’

Wigan’s Sean O’Loughlin said: ‘Body-wise I’ve been aching for about five years and, mentally, now feels like the right time to do it and end on a high.’ Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

The loose forward has spent his entire career with Wigan, while Graham spent eight years in Australia playing in the NRL, the competition seen as the sport’s pinnacle. But despite O’Loughlin never testing himself against the best of Australia, Graham is in no doubt about his credentials. “That’s not even a question you need to ask,” the prop said of his former international teammate. “That doesn’t define Sean as a person. When you think of what he’s done in the game, you’re left in no doubt that he’s a rugby league legend.”

Graham, three years O’Loughlin’s junior, is equally reflective that now is the right time to finish, having returned to St Helens midway through this year. “Your body tells you when it’s the right time, and it is for me,” he said. “The goal was to come back here and get one more title, and defend the one the boys won last year. That’s still the goal.” And much like Graham is effusive in his praise of O’Loughlin, the sentiment is returned despite the fierce rivalry between Wigan and St Helens.

“There are players you look at, watch them get older, and aren’t sure if they’re going to give it everything they have every week,” O’Loughlin said. “You could never question that with James Graham. That’s what separates him and puts him down as one of the best. I’ve known him from a young age, and you could tell he was going to be a superstar.” The retirement angle will dominate Friday’s buildup, but it is not just those two individuals who could decide the final.

Last month, rugby league’s greatest rivals served up a thrillingmatch, arguably the best Super League game in years, in which Wigan emerged victorious to take a decisive step towards top spot. Neutrals and diehards alike will be mindful to watch the battle between the electric Bevan French and his St Helens counterpart, Lachlan Coote, at full-back. So too the rejuvenation of Zak Hardaker, as he hunts a first title since testing positive for cocaine on the eve of the 2017 final with Castleford.

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And what about Matty Lees? The St Helens prop missed last season’s Grand Final against Salford after suffering a perforated bowel in a game against Leeds and wastaken to hospital with not only his career, but his life, on the line. There are stories everywhere you look, and after a year we will all be keen to see the back of, for 80 minutes on Friday night, you are advised to sit back and enjoy two of rugby league’s great sides do battle once again.


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