End of an era looms for the Good Friday disagreement

It's the grudge match reignited every Easter – but St Helens entertain Wigan today in the last bank holiday derby at Knowsley Road, their home for 120 years
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The Independent Online

Generations of Wigan coaches have been told the same thing by the club's supporters. What really matters is beating St Helens and that victories on enemy turf are especially sweet. That will ensure that the last-ever Good Friday derby at Knowsley Road, Saints' home for 120 years, this afternoon will have an intensity all of its own.

Saints move out of their historic home at the end of this season, whether their new, town-centre stadium is ready or not, and they will want to do so with one last win over Wigan under their belts.

For all the passion it now generates, the Good Friday derby between Saints and Wigan is not quite the ancient tribal tradition it might appear. Historically, Saints' biggest derby was against the town's other – and sometimes stronger – club, St Helens Recs.

Wigan tended to play Warrington on Good Friday and it was not until the mid-Fifties that the current pattern was established – one which, unlike the Christmas derby, has survived the switch to summer rugby.

From its establishment, however, Saints against Wigan on Good Friday has felt like one of the code's big occasions. "The build-up to the matches is electric and it does get to players and to players and coaches – and not just the ones born in the two towns," wrote the late Eric Ashton, born in St Helens but who was a Wigan player.

He quoted the case of Mike McClennan, father of the Leeds coach Brian, who coached Saints 20 years ago, at a time when Wigan were dominating the domestic game. "I've never seen a man as happy as when we beat Wigan in the 1990 Good Friday match. You would have thought we'd won at Wembley."

Saints' latest star, Kyle Eastmond, might have grown up in Oldham, but he has learned all about the rivalry between the two towns, barely 10 miles apart as the crow flies over Billinge Hill. "This is a massive game, not just for the two teams but for the town of St Helens," he says. "We're all well aware of how much it means to everybody.

"Nobody wants to be part of a losing team in a derby match, but this one is extra special. We're going to do all we can to get the win our fans deserve."

Eastmond's Wigan equivalent, the equally brilliant young stand-off Sam Tomkins accepts that his side will be heavily outnumbered on the terraces at the old ground, but knows that they will not lack passionate support. "There's going to be a massive crowd, but the travelling support for us will be huge," he says.

Statistically, Saints have had the advantage in the big Easter Parade at Knowsley Road, but never as much so as in recent years. Wigan have not won there since 2003, although they have earned two draws in their last nine visits. Barring a convenient Challenge Cup draw or a meeting in the play-offs, they know this is their last chance.

As Super League leaders, Wigan deserve to start as marginal favourites in front of a sold-out 17,500 crowd, although their coach, Michael Maguire, will be, in his first derby, without his first-choice hooker Mark Riddell, who has a hamstring injury, as well as Cameron Phelps and Harrison Hansen. That could create an opportunity for Paul Deacon, back in the squad after a groin injury.

Saints, third in the league but in line to go level with Wigan if they win, still have plenty of absentees and make just one change, recalling the experienced prop Nick Fozzard in place of Chris Dean.

One of those sidelined players, Paul Wellens, is well placed to talk on the significance of the occasion for the club and the town."For a St Helens lad like me, playing against Wigan is the ultimate game," he says. "Even playing for the town team at under-11s meant more when we were playing against Wigan.

"With it being the last derby game at Knowsley Road, the atmosphere is going to be amazing," Wellens adds. "I'll just be wishing I was out there."

Knowsley Road: A brief history

* There will be 17,500 people in Knowsley Road today, but the old stadium will not be as full as on Boxing Day 1949, when 35,695 crammed in to watch Saints host Wigan. The intense rivalry was never more prevalent than in the 2004 Good Friday derby, which ended 21-21 and included an infamous brawl between Wigan's Andy Farrell and Paul Sculthorpe of Saints.

* They are just two of the great players to have graced Knowsley Road since the first match there in 1890, between Saints and Manchester Rangers. The legendary Tom van Vollenhoven is another of Saints and indeed the game's greats. He amassed a club record of 392 tries in 408 appearances for St Helens between 1957-68.

Martha Kelner

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