27th November 2020, 08:34 | super_league

Grand Final farewell to three titans of British rugby league

Grand Final farewell to three titans of British rugby league

Mutual respect.

It might lack the impact of fierce rivalry in the build-up to a Grand Final, especially between Wigan and St Helens.

But in the many interviews conducted with or about James Graham or Sean O’Loughlin this week, nobody has managed a bad word, never mind any trash talking.

Two warriors, even if one of them is a Saint.

Two ball-players, albeit in very different ways.

Two leaders, whether or not they’ve been officially captaining either country or club.

But only one of them can go out in fairytale fashion, as a Grand Final winner.

Is it sentimental to suggest that defeat would be crueller to Graham, and perhaps even victory sweeter, as he has endured no fewer than seven Grand Final defeats since his sole triumph, which came way back in 2006 when he’d just turned 21?

In each of the next five autumns, Graham cut a disconsolate figure on the Old Trafford turf after losing with Saints – four times to Leeds, and once to O’Loughlin’s Wigan.

As an Everton fan who rates the experience of playing at Anfield in a stirring England win against New Zealand in 2018 on the top tier of the many highlights of his career, perhaps he will be quietly relieved to be avoiding one last match at Old Trafford – and sniff a happy omen in the Covid-enforced switch of this year’s title decider to Hull.

Graham has always worn his heart on his sleeve – he may be retiring, but it’s a while since anyone called him shy - and it was the same in Sydney as his Canterbury team were beaten by Melbourne in 2012, and Souths in 2014 – Grand Finals which will always link him to Billy Slater, and to Sam Burgess.

O’Loughlin has a happier Grand Final record, with four wins – three of them against Warrington – compared to three defeats, the first of which was 17 years ago against Bradford.

Having turned 38 this week, he’ll become the oldest Super League Grand Finalist, pipping Jamie Peacock – even if O’Loughlin’s hair has retained its colour as well as Hobbit-esque curls, whereas Peacock had been greying gracefully throughout his 30s with Leeds.

Consistency has been one of O’Loughlin’s hallmarks, but a fair few of the performances that live in the memory came against Saints – none more than the 2014 Good Friday derby at Langtree Park, when he threw one of the passes of the Super League era, to lay on a try for Dan Sarginson, as Wigan sprung a surprise against their hitherto unbeaten rivals.

"I've just said to him in the shower room, he never ceases to amaze me," the coach, Shaun Wane, said of his fellow Wiganer. "He's an outstanding captain, he's a good bloke, he can drink, he can do everything. I'd better not say any more about that."

His opposite number, Nathan Brown, responded: "Sean O'Loughlin just took us to school today. He showed why he's one of the best players in the world. That's why Waney just saves him for the big games if his body's struggling."

With a respectful nod here to Zeb Taia, who will also be playing his last match after giving excellent service to Saints and Catalans in the Super League, there will be a third retiring titan of 21st century British Rugby League involved at the K-Com tonight.

Gareth Ellis confirmed last weekend that the unplanned and enjoyable postscript to his distinguished career has now definitely ended – and although there will be no Grand Final swansong for him, he has accepted the invitation to deliver the match ball.

Ellis belongs in that same rarefied category as Graham and O’Loughlin, outstanding British forwards of the last two decades – although he made his debut in 1999.

Kevin Sinfield, who played with and against all three, effused equally about them this week – and reflected ruefully on what might have been had Ellis and O’Loughlin been available to join Graham in the England team that went so close to World Cup triumph in 2017.

As many have said this week, Super League’s 23rd Grand Final is going to stand alone from the previous 22, in terms of the venue, the atmosphere, even the night of the week.

Perhaps on that basis it’s no surprise that the build-up has also felt significantly different. No Old Trafford press conference. No swanky Man of Steel ceremony.

But also no trash talking; instead, a reflection on the team effort it’s taken to get here.

Not only from Wigan and St Helens, but from the players at all the other clubs who have taken pay-cuts and toned down their celebrations; from the match officials and administrators who have made similar social sacrifices to allow the show to go on; from the chairmen (all men) and chief executives, the sponsors, broadcasters and even the Government, who have dug deep in a different way; from the physios and doctors who have combined their Rugby League roles with matters of life and death on Covid-affected wards.

As with James Graham, Sean O’Loughlin and Gareth Ellis - mutual respect.