In a season where Super League’s young guns have stepped up like never before, the old guard will take centre stage in Friday’s Grand Final.
Much of the pre-match narrative has surrounded retiring duo Sean O’Loughlin and James Graham, two of the most iconic figures of the summer era. O’Loughlin will become the oldest Grand Finalist in its 23-year history at 38 years and three days, while Graham is 35.
Saints back rower Zeb Taia, 36, will also hang up his boots after the game, while two of the key playmakers James Roby and Thomas Leuluia are both 35. Ten other players – Kyle Amor, Lachlan Coote, Jonny Lomax, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Kevin Naiqama, Dom Peyroux, Alex Walmsley, Tony Clubb, Liam Farrell and Willie Isa – are also 30 or older.
But the spotlight will fall most firmly on O’Loughlin and Graham, as former England and Great Britain team-mates who came through the youth systems at their respective clubs to develop into two of the biggest stars of the sport.
While O’Loughlin has spent his entire career in the cherry and white of Wigan, Graham returned for a Saints swan-song in July, having played for eight years in Australia.
Graham said: “It’s coming to an end and I’ve probably known for quite some time that this season was going to be my last. The old body’s not what it used to be and it’s time to hang up the boots.
“But I’m extremely excited about this one last game. I wasn’t focused on the big picture of getting to a Grand Final or winning a Grand Final when I came back.
“St Helens is a club that’s close to my heart and has had a lot of success over the years, but the focus was on just getting an opportunity to get there. I just wanted to do all the little thing that help give you that chance.”
Graham describes O’Loughlin as “a warrior, a competitor on and off the field” who doesn’t have any weak spots.
The admiration is mutual. O’Loughlin said: “I’ve got lots of great memories of playing alongside and against Jammer – he’s been a top team-mate internationally for me.
“This will be no different to usual – he’ll be giving it his all. I have a massive amount of respect for what he’s achieved in his career and what he’s done not just here but overseas as well.”
Combined, they have played almost 1,000 top level games of this gladiatorial sport. Friday night will be one of the strangest for both – a Grand Final in Hull away from its spiritual Old Trafford home, and without the supporters that have idolised both through their careers.
That will prove another dimension to a game title sponsors Betfred can barely split, giving Wigan the slight edge, perhaps by virtue of their recent 18-6 win over their great rivals.
O’Loughlin added: “All the games we’ve played with no crowds have been different atmosphere-wise and it’s going to be similar to that.
“I wasn’t involved in the Wigan-Saints game a few weeks back but that was a step up in intensity from some of the previous rounds. I’m expecting the same again – it’s going to be a real physical game, a quick game and tough battle.
“The crowd that normally plays a big part with the atmosphere won’t be there, but the intensity still will be with what’s at stake and that will drive that.”
One of these relentless forwards will end their careers on the ultimate high – both will be remembered long after the final hooter for their contribution to the sport.