When Andy Coley had a potentially career-ending knee injury at Swinton, he scarcely dreamed that one day he might have the chance to call himself a world champion in his chosen sport.
Coley, who will play in the front row for Wigan against St George-Illawarra in the Probiz World Club Challenge at the DW Stadium tonight, is a classic late developer.
At an age when most of his team-mates at Wigan were already full-time professionals, he was playing part time in the lower divisions and qualifying as a quantity surveyor. "My ambition at the time wasn't to win world titles, it was just to turn full time," says Coley.
That knee injury scuppered a projected transfer to his home-town club Warrington, and it looked for a while as though the National Leagues might be as high as his career would go.
But then Salford took a successful gamble on his fitness and Coley was finally up and running. With the City Reds, he experienced relegation from Super League and promotion back into it. But he showed the sort of form that caught the eye of Wigan, for whom he signed before the 2008 season.
Coley was dissatisfied with his first season with his new club. "I was too inconsistent, a good game one week and a poor one the next," he says. But he had no such complaint about last season, in which he was virtually an ever-present as Wigan won Super League for the first time in 12 years.
"I was thinking the other day that being part of the Wigan team that started winning things after a gap like that was something you'll look back on after the end of your career and feel proud about," he says. He even did something that amazed anyone who knows him. A quiet, undemonstrative individual off the field, he joined his team-mates in getting a commemorative tattoo. "I always said I'd never get a tattoo, but there it is," Coley says, rolling up his shirt sleeve. "Discreet."
Having made his mark on that piece of Wigan history, he sees the World Club Challenge as the next step. After all, the three games in that series they have won in their recent history rank among their most famous moments.
The WCC has also made a habit of throwing up unexpected heroes from the Wigan front row. Shaun Wane, now on the club's coaching staff, was man of the match when they beat Manly in 1987. In 1994, they were so short of props that the lightweight back-rower Billy McGinty started the unforgettable victory at Brisbane in that role. "There's a lot of history there," Coley says. "They have always been massive games."
Tonight might not match the atmosphere that 37,000-plus generated at Central Park 23 years ago, but there will be plenty of historic resonance. For one thing, the class of '87 will do a lap of honour before the game – Ellery Hanley, Andy Gregory and the other great names of that era.
For another, St George, combined with the Illawarra Steelers or not, are one of the legendary institutions of the game. Much as Wigan dominated the game here for more than a decade, they had already done the same in Australia.
This is their first World Club Challenge, but no club coached by Wayne Bennett will lack know-how on the international stage.
And Andy Coley, just coming into his prime at 32, will have wife, step-daughter and daughter there to see him play in what he calls "the biggest game of my life".
Wigan versus St George-Illawarra is on Sky Sports 1 from 7pm tonight
Wigan's World Club titles
2 Oct 1987 Wigan 8 Manly 2 (Central Park): Wigan went out on a limb to stage the first World Club Challenge and 37,000 were crammed in to see a gripping game. No tries, but four goals from David Stephenson won it.
2 Oct 1991 Wigan 21 Penrith 4 (Anfield): Liverpool's extra capacity was not stretched by a 20,000 crowd. Wigan won comfortably, with Frano Botica man of the match for six goals.
1 June 1994 Brisbane 14 Wigan 20 (ANZ Stadium): The WCC was played in Australia for the first time and Wigan were magnificent in beating the Broncos, with tries from Denis Betts, Jason Robinson and Barrie Jon Mather.
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