'Pick your favourite Grand Final fairytale'

Shaun Wane

Betfred Super League Grand Final 2018
Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester Date: Saturday, 13 October Kick-off: 18:00 BST Coverage: Highlights on BBC Sport; commentary on BBC national and local radio; live text coverage on the BBC Sport website and app.

It is a Grand Final that will be awash with stories, whoever wins.

So for the neutrals it is a case of pick your favourite fairytale ending to the 2018 season, and settle back to see what happens in what should be one hell of a battle.

For Wigan it is all about goodbyes, and one significant welcome back.

The Saturday night lights of domestic rugby league’s biggest stage will shine down on a clutch of personalities who will be representing the Cherry and Whites one last time.

After 30 years at Wigan, coach Shaun Wane will walk away after the game for a new role with Scottish Rugby Union.

He was a prodigious talent when he signed from local amateurs Wigan St Pats in 1982, developed into a Great Britain international, has been a scout at the club and coached at all levels from the juniors to becoming head coach six years ago.

His pre-match press conferences have been emotional, so the post-match interviews – win or lose – will almost certainly produce a tidal wave of tears.

Likewise, a clutch of star names face their finale. Chief among them is full-back Sam Tomkins, who is off to Catalans next year, and forward and Steve Prescott Man of Steel nominee John Bateman, who is leaving to take up the challenge of the NRL with the Canberra Raiders.

History tells us that Old Trafford can produce the perfect emotional punch line.

When Leeds’ legendary trio of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai swan-songed in 2015, each left with a winner’s ring and a fitting finish to their club careers.

But it’s the quality of their collective input, rather than the romantic demands of the occasion, that is most likely to deliver success.

Wane knows how to prepare a team to win a big occasion – his side has won five trophies in the last six years.

Tomkins is back at the top of his game after an injury-blighted couple of seasons and he is influencing his team more than ever.

And there’s a reason why Bateman is coveted by an NRL club – he’s a class act with a temperament and tenacity that suits the big stage.

If they win, it’s the calibre of those characters that will count, not pure sentiment.

Sam Tomkins<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

Manfredi is back – and what a return

Those who love a fight-back, a success-against-all-odds story, also have a reason for willing on the Warriors.

For two years, winger Dom Manfredi has suffered the cruellest of injury lay-offs.

In August 2016, then aged 22, he was in fabulous form. Some 37 tries in his past 43 appearances were not just delighting Wigan fans; he was also on the cusp of an England call-up.

Then, in a game against Castleford he ruptured knee ligaments and his whole career was put on hold.

He endured a tough year of rehabilitation, before finally making his comeback in a reserve team game 12 months later. Heartbreakingly, in that game, he snapped a ligament again and that was another year in the solitary confinement of the recovery room.

But now he’s back. And what a return. His first match was against, low and behold, Warrington in the Super 8s last month, and he headlined the night with two tries as his name echoed around the DW Stadium.

“The Grand Final will be a dream come true,” Manfredi says. “I had so many doubts in my head after what happened, I often wondered in those two years what I was doing this for.

“But one day I just decided I had to give it my all and get back fit. Because this is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

‘Rugby league is desperate for a new name on the cup’

While Wigan want to tug at the neutral’s heart-strings, Warrington would quickly point out that they too have every reason to be considered the people’s favourites as they walk out onto the Old Trafford pitch.

Wolves they may be, but they are also underdogs in terms of silverware success. They could make history by lifting the trophy.

Since the first Grand Final in 1998, only four sides have won it. Wigan, Leeds, St Helens and Bradford. And it’s 13 years since Bradford were last victorious.

So this is an annual event that has become like a closed shop. Rugby league at large is desperate to see a new name on the cup.

Warrington have been this close before, but fell at the final hurdle in the 2012, 2013 and 2016 Super League deciders – the last two of those against Wigan.

The last time they won the Rugby League champions title was in 1955, on the other side of Manchester, at City’s Maine Road in a play-off final against Oldham.

So many yearn for a new name and something a little different.

Steve Price<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

Victory this year would also seal a sensational season for coach Steve Price.

The Australian took over a club at the start of this campaign that had flirted with relegation in 2017. He has led them to a Challenge Cup final, losing to Catalans. Now he’s in the Grand Final.

That’s some achievement, although he says “we’ve got nothing to be proud of if we don’t get the win on Saturday.”

It furrowed a few brows when he wasn’t even named on the short-list for the 2018 coach of the year award, a prize won, incidentally, by Shaun Wane.

Many neutrals will be hoping that stand-off Kevin Brown can finally get the winners medal his career deserves.

He celebrated his 34th birthday last week, but so far has picked up only losers medals in Challenge Cup finals playing for Wigan, Huddersfield and his current club, and in the World Cup final with England last year.

And on the theme of “age shall not weary them” what about Ben Westwood, one of the most popular characters in the game? At 37 he’s the oldest swinger in Super League, having spent 16 years leading the charge for Warrington.

“I’m still only 18 in my head,” he claims. “My body is alright. I do feel it, but not as much as I thought I would.”

He’s thinking about going again next year. One way or the other, Saturday’s outcome may help him reach his decision.

’80 minutes from something special’

If you’re looking for a “we should have seen that twist coming” plot-line being delivered, take a look at any one of a number of ex-Wigan academy lads now in the Warrington line-up to produce a match-winning moment.

Most likely would be from the athletic, acrobatic try-scorer that is Josh Charnley. The former Wigan winger, whose place in the Warriors team was once pinched by Manfredi, has been sensational following his return to league from union.

Since coming back from a difficult spell in the 15-a-side code with Sale, he’s been proving what a naturally-gifted rugby league winger he is with 15 tries in 21 Super League matches.

What chance he comes up with a bit of magic that breaks the hearts of his old mates?

It’s a match that’s impossible to call before the first bruising tackle is landed. And even then we might have to wait a full 80 minutes before we can declare a winner.

Each have their reasons for wanting success, summed up by Sam Tomkins.

“You work really hard for 11 months of the year,” he says. “You start running up snowy hills at 07:00 in the morning in November and your motivation is a gold ring the following October.

“When you get to a Grand Final it’s a relief. A relief that you’ve got to where you wanted to get to. Now you’re only 80 minutes away from something special.”

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