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Super League Grand Final: Wigan v St Helens as Sean O'Loughlin & James Graham bow out


James Graham and Sean O'Loughlin were Test teammates with Great Britain and England
James Graham and Sean O’Loughlin were Test teammates with Great Britain and England
Venue: KCOM Stadium, Hull Date: Friday, 27 November Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Full commentary on 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC local radio and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

The big prize of the 2020 Super League season will be decided in a derby decider between minor premiers Wigan and 2019 champions St Helens, in Hull.

After an elongated season affected by Covid-19, the two old foes, who finished first and second respectively, progressed to the showpiece final.

Both have departing club legends – Saints’ James Graham and Wigan’s Sean O’Loughlin – playing their final games.

Saints won the last Grand Final meeting of the two clubs back in 2014.

Sam Powell returns at hooker for Wigan, but Ben Flower – sent off in that final six years ago – misses out on what would have been his last appearance.

Saints had concerns over Graham after he went off through concussion protocols in the semi-final against Catalans, but he is included along with fellow prop Alex Walmsley.

Sending off heroes in style

Sean O'Loughlin and James Graham
Sean O’Loughlin and James Graham have faced each other many times over the years

As with Leeds in 2015 and 2017, and Wigan in 2018, emotional incentives provide a strong narrative to the Grand Final and 2020 is no exception with both teams keen to send their talismanic figures out on a high.

“We’ve brought him up a few times but Sean, being the person he is, tries to go under the radar and not talk about it,” Warriors coach Adrian Lam – who played alongside O’Loughlin on his debut – told BBC Sport.

“It’s important we play well for him. Both clubs are in a similar situation where you want to do the best you can to send off your heroes and players that have done great things.”

Saints boss Kristian Woolf paid tribute to the “terrific” Graham for his achievements both in England and Australia, where he was so highly rated he won the Dally M prop of the year award ahead of several Australian powerhouses in 2014.

“We’ve had to and want to acknowledge it,” Woolf said. “James does not want to make it about himself.

“It’s not just James [leaving] either; Zeb Taia has been a big player for this club in more recent years. He has had a lot of success and we’d love to send them off on a successful note.”

‘Teams try to tap into that emotional side’

O’Loughlin was skipper the first time Wigan overcame Saints in a Grand Final back in 2010, one of four title triumphs in his career.

His last was the 2018 match when a hugely emotional Shaun Wane, a mentor to so many of the squad having served pretty much every role at the club from player to boss, bowed out of his boyhood club.

“Some of the best wins I’ve had in Grand Finals have been about people leaving or moving on, not necessarily retiring, but moving to different pastures,” said O’Loughlin, who turned 38 on Tuesday.

“It’s alright for me to want to finish on a high, but there’s myself, Ben Flower leaving us, Budgie [Joe Burgess] moving on… it’s what it brings to the group as a whole.

“Saints will have the same with their boys moving on; you want to do it for them as much as yourself, that emotional side of things is what it brings.

“Teams try to tap into that, and teams I’ve been beaten against at times have had a strong reason to go out there and win it.”

‘It’s a 50/50 game’

Saints were at their dominant best in 2019, and in 2020 post-restart looked to be gunning for a third ‘minor’ premiership – the League Leaders’ Shield – in a row.

Ten wins on the spin lifted them to the top of Super League but defeat by Salford and then Wigan, in a bruising tussle, saw them deposed by their nearest and dearest.

“At the end of the day we finished second in the league; we go into a 50/50 game,” said stand-off Jonny Lomax. “Wigan are a quality team, just as Salford were [last year], they’d earned the right to get there.

“It’s something that as a team, not just for the players but also all the staff behind the scenes, is a massive achievement to get there and probably nothing really changes [in terms of how we prepare].”

Analysis – how do the experts think it will go?

Kevin Brown (Ex-England international and Salford half-back)

“I spoke to the Salford lads about Jackson Hastings’ performance at hooker against Hull, and we all said how close it was to Cameron Smith [ex-Kangaroos test hooker]. Full of control, full of energy, dictating where the ball goes, lots of patience and a real tough kicking game to defend against.

“If Sam Powell plays, as seems likely, he’s had an outstanding year and has scored lots of tries. Whichever way they go, it will be a great option. You’d just feel sorry for Harry Smith who might miss out.

“Last time Saints played Wigan I spoke to Jonny Lomax after the game and he took some real stick off Willie Isa and Tommy Leuluai on that edge, and he did again last week against Catalans.

“Someone needs to be sat next to Jonny to make sure that doesn’t happen. Zeb Taia sits next to him all the time, but I think Morgan Knowles will take that on as well.”

John Kear (Wales and Bradford coach; part of BBC 5 live Sports Extra commentary team)

“Leeds absolutely out-muscled Wigan in the Challenge Cup semi-finals, no doubt about that. Wigan learned a load from that defeat. I love to see how teams evolve. They took what they learned to the last derby game against St Helens and mullered the Saints pack.

“The Saints forwards will have retribution in their minds, and I think Wigan will be aware that may be happening. I love these battles – a physical battle to establish dominance.

“I think it will be a proper Grand Final, an 18-14 type of scoreline. There’ll be no comfort in this game, it’ll be a minute one-to-80 graft.”

Jonathan Davies (Former GB international and part of BBC TV’s commentary team)

“It’s a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true – it’s always a special match and occasion when these two meet.

“Two of the game’s legends are retiring in Graham and O’Loughlin, so there is a story on both sides, but the real story is about how both these sides have come through a difficult season and proved to be the outstanding teams.

“Incredibly, despite the weird year and fixture pile-up, they are both picking from more or less full strength. They’re nearly all fit.

“Defensively, both are really difficult to break down at the edges, so, no surprises, it’ll be who gets the edge up front. They’re so equal in every department, but I think I just fancy Wigan to edge it.

“It’ll be weird playing in such a big final without fans, but the players have to remind themselves that this is an iconic year and everyone will remember this final because of that. It’ll be like the Watersplash Finalexternal-link [the 1968 Challenge Cup final] in that respect; everyone will remember it.”

Teams

Wigan (from): Hardaker, Hankinson, Gildart, J. Burgess, French, Leuluai, Clubb, Powell, G. Burgess, Isa, Farrell, O’Loughlin, Greeenwood, Smithies, Partington, Bullock, Byrne, Bibby, Smith, Hastings, Singleton

St Helens (from): Coote, Makinson, Naiqama, Grace, Lomax, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, Taia, Peyroux, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Knowles, Lees, Amor, Smith, Bentley, Welsby, Batchelor, Simm, Dodd, Graham.



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