When Wigan Warriors and St Helens square off in the Super League grand final at Old Trafford, it will compare to nothing else.
The one they dare not lose
The Mexicans, Italians and Bulgarians who call Old Trafford's Theatre of Dreams home vacate the stage today as players with names such as Tomkins, Wellens and Richards have their moment in the spotlight. The globalised world of Premier League football could not contrast more starkly with the 13-man, oval-ball code of rugby league than it does in Manchester this evening.
It is a pity that the Super League grand final between Wigan Warriors and St Helens clashes with Manchester United's away fixture at Sunderland. It would be interesting to know what the likes of Javier Hernandez, Federico Macheda and Dimitar Berbatov would make of the line-markings on their turf, let alone the collisions and brute force of the game they would witness. Perhaps more intriguing still would be their take on the fanaticism with which the game is received by the rival sets of supporters.
The two clubs are based 12 miles apart, in neighbouring towns, and just 28 miles down the road from Old Trafford itself. The tribalism in the stands will be every bit as primal as in any football derby. "There is no bigger rivalry in rugby," said Sam Tomkins, the Wigan full-back who has since been named Super League's young player of the year. The fact that two hometown Wigan-boys-made-good, Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell, agree with Tomkins is hardly a surprise.When the adopted Saint, Apollo Perelini, a cross-code Samoa international who was brought up on the other side of the world, echoes the view, it takes on even greater credence.
The trio of club legends from either side of the divide know well how the opposing sets of players will be feeling this morning. The message from supporters is loud and clear: don't you dare lose. "You honestly can't compare it to anything else," said Farrell, the former Wigan and Great Britain captain who followed an exceptional career in league by representing England in union. "It is a tribal battle. It is do-or-die, and when players say they are being thrown into a cauldron that is definitely how it feels.
"This close-town mentality breeds massive rivalry. With rugby league being played predominantly in the north and towns being so close to each other the rivalry is even more extra-special. And Wigan v St Helens is the biggest by a country mile." Farrell added: "I remember when Australian players came to Wigan they did not realise just how ferocious the atmosphere was." In a country otherwise wallpapered by football, rugby league in the UK is essentially fossilised in a relatively small area in the north of England.
The unique geography of the English game probably was not easy for southern hemisphere players to fathom, given that away matches in their home competition would often involve air travel. It never takes long for the message to sink in, however. "My first derby was a Boxing Day game in 1994," said Perelini, who left his native Auckland to play rugby league in the UK. "I realised immediately how much it meant. Saints fans were saying to me as soon as I got there, 'We don't care if you lose every game in the season, so long as you beat Wigan - in any game.' It was the same for them."
St Helens have had the better of it in recent times. They were the inaugural champions when the UK's top rugby league competition switched from winter to summer and became re-branded as the Super League in 1996. Two years later the competition took on the play-off format for the first time, meaning the champions would be decided by a winner-takes-all grand final. Wigan, who had finished top of the table anyway, were the first winners of the new flagship match, with Farrell as captain.
"We were lucky at Wigan that a good few of us had won plenty of trophies over a period of time," Farrell said of the 1998 final, which finished in a 10-4 victory for them. "It was another trophy with a bit of a twist to win. "It was the first one with a grand final, and this concept had been watched over many a year by all the players in the Australian grand finals. So we all knew it was going to be massive for years to come.
"It is the most exciting way to decide it by a mile, and I think it is fair as well. "The most exciting part of any sport is how teams handle the pressure of the big occasions, and watching players with big-game temperaments." Edwards has few regrets from his playing days. As another ex-Wigan and Great Britain captain, Edwards won more league championships - eight - than any player in the history of the sport. Yet not one of the nine was won via a grand final.
Having since experienced the thrill of grand final success as a coach in rugby union's English Premiership with London Wasps, Edwards thinks he missed out as a player. "I fully applaud it. I wish they had it when I played," the Wales assistant coach said. "The most exciting method and the one that goes along with the rest of world sport is to have a grand final. "The only sport I know which doesn't have a grand final is soccer. If you look at American sports, Australian sports, and everywhere else in the world, there is always a game at the end of the season to decide who is going to be champions."
He did know what it was like to win finals rugby, however, and his two Challenge Cup wins over St Helens rank among his fondest memories. "They were tough games, there was no quarter asked and none given. Luckily we were on the right end of the scoreline both times," Edwards said. "When you come back home and see the satisfaction of the people when you are on the open-top bus. "I was a Wigan-born lad, so to feel that you had played a part in putting that smile on someone's face was very rewarding."
This evening's encounter marks the first time the two best of enemies have met in a final since 2000, when Perelini's St Helens beat a Wigan side led by Farrell 29-16 in front of 58,000 people. "Disappointments are what make you a bigger and better player," Farrell said. "I don't think you get a bigger game than Wigan against St Helens, whether it be a grand final or not, especially being a local boy."
For Perelini, the memories of that victory are particularly sentimental. The man known as "the Terminator" to the Saints faithful on account of his tackling was playing his last game in league, having signed up for a return to the 15-man game. He was due to be at training with his new club, Sale Sharks, on the Monday morning, two days after the grand final, and a familiar face would be there with him.
"It was the most emotional final for me because it was my last game of rugby league, my last game for St Helens, and I knew it was my farewell," he said. "After the game, Jason Robinson and I got together. It was a special time." Robinson, who went on to become a World Cup winner with England in union, was Wigan's most potent attacking threat. Coincidentally, he was also Perelini's housemate, and had signed up to join Sale the following week as well.
It was Perelini who would retain the rugby league bragging rights for good. "In the second half of the game I had a chance to score under the posts," Perelini recalled. "I only had Jason to beat and I thought I would bump him off. But he launched himself straight into me and hit the ball out of my hand. "When I was through with just him to beat I thought I was just going to smash him. He put his body on the line, and the ball spilled out.
"Five minutes later he could have put them in the lead. He saw a hole which I quickly plugged. "He stepped inside me and I missed him but put my leg out and tripped him up. The ref didn't pick it up, and everyone was screaming at him. "After the game, Jason said, 'Hey, you did an illegal foul on me'. I said he'd tripped. I was the last line, and after he'd beaten me he would have had just the full-back to beat, and you know what Jason was like one-on-one. He was unbelievable.
"He still blames me for it. He says we only won because of my illegal foul, but I just say, 'Look in the papers, dude'."
Keiron Cunningham v Mark Riddell
Both hookers will be keen to make their mark on their final appearances for their clubs.
Cunningham has scored crucial tries in each of his last three appearances and a trademark bulldozing run to the line from dummy half would provide a fitting farewell to one of the legends of the modern game. Riddell, whose sprints out of dummy half are in contrast to the more forceful approach of his counterpart, has produced his best rugby for Wigan in recent weeks and is determined to end his Super League stint on a high.
Matty Smith v Sam Tomkins
Smith’s temporary return to his hometown club is straight out of the Boys’ Own Annual and, if his forwards can create the space for his clever kicking game, he can spearhead a fairy-tale finish to his Saints career. Tomkins will be named at full-back but he has a roving role in the Wigan team and is without doubt the main threat to St Helens. Hull KR coach Justin Morgan reckons the only way to stop his mazy runs is with a poison dart.
James Graham v Stuart Fielden
St Helens have become worryingly reliant on Graham’s energy-sapping bursts and quick offload game but the good news for them is that he rarely disappoints. Wigan’s workload is shared more evenly but Fielden has been their key performer this year after turning the clock back four years with the form that marked him out as the best front-row forward in the game.
Jamie Foster v Pat Richards
Like Richards, Foster is a fine goal-kicker stationed out wide and the Saints youngster has gone from the fringes of the first-team squad at the start of the year to a regular in the 17-man line-up. Richards has enjoyed a stellar season. He is the leading try-scorer, top points scorer, newly-crowned Man of Steel and also passed Andy Farrell’s Wigan record for most points in a season.