Bulls and Wigan to serve up a classic

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The Independent Online

If ever there was an ideal time for rugby league to show that it can still produce the goods on the field, even if it sometimes seems to stagger from crisis to crisis off it, it is tonight at Old Trafford.

If ever there was an ideal time for rugby league to show that it can still produce the goods on the field, even if it sometimes seems to stagger from crisis to crisis off it, it is tonight at Old Trafford.

More than a dozen of the players in action in the Super League Grand Final between Bradford and Wigan will have been distracted this week by the uncertainty over whether they will be playing Australia next month, or whether their season ends here.

That is all out of their hands now. All they can do is to demonstrate that, however messed up the game might be internationally, it remains capable of producing compelling domestic drama.

Fortunately, the fourth staging of the Grand Final at Old Trafford has the makings of a classic. Not only are Wigan and Bradford undeniably the two best teams in Super League, there is also an intriguing contrast in style.

The Wigan chairman, Maurice Lindsay, calls it "the rapier versus the broadsword," although, given the sensitivity about these matters, rugby league might be better steering clear of battle-ground analogies.

No team with Robbie and – in his last game of league – Henry Paul at half-back can be accused of relying exclusively on power. But, given that Wigan have an equally gifted and in-form pairing in Adrian Lam and Matthew Johns, the contrasts between the two sides lie elsewhere.

The Bulls have stuck rigidly all season to their policy of rotating their "Awesome Foursome" of prop forwards, bringing on Paul Anderson and Stuart Fielden for the equally imposing Joe Vagana and Brian McDermott and hitting the opposition with a second wave of size and strength.

It is not a pattern that suits everyone – "I'd like to be on the field for longer, but that's just the way it is," said Fielden – but, against all but the most resolute opposition, it works.

By comparison, Wigan's front-row resources look thin, with just Neil Cowie waiting on the bench to help out. They do not want to get into a battering-ram contest with Bradford, because they know that their real strengths lie elsewhere.

Stuart Raper was relieved to be able to name Brett Dallas on the wing, because it is the extra pace in those areas that can win him the match. Bradford's Leon Pryce and Tevita Vaikona are not slow, but Wigan's Dallas and Brian Carney have the edge in acceleration and ability to change direction.

Inside them, Steve Renouf and a revitalised Gary Connolly are the more sprightly pair of centres. If Wigan can get the ball wide as they did against St Helens last week, their wait for a trophy will be over.

It is three years since they carried off a prize – an unconscionable length of time for a club that dominated the British game. They have built a top-class side again, but need a return on their investment.

Bradford's accumulated frustration is subtly different. Over the six years of Super League, they have been, on a weekly basis, the dominant club in the competition – but it does not show in the records, because they have so rarely done themselves justice on the big occasion.

There has been a sense since Brian Noble took over as coach this season that they could be about to overcome their big-match neuroses. They failed to do so in the Challenge Cup final, but they are due to lose the tag of a team that loses its bottle when it matters most.

They have had a calm, orderly preparation, with two separate weekends off and a settled team, again unchanged. They need to win tonight if they are to avoid the sinking feeling that, with the departure of Henry Paul, the side that should have achieved much more is starting to break up.

There is the prospect of a 58,000-plus record crowd and we have been told that there is, for the first time, a chance of it not raining. Perhaps somebody up there likes rugby league after all.