Whichever side of the globe you look at, this is a big day in the life of the Johns family. This morning, Andrew Johns, widely regarded as the best rugby league player in the world, will lead the Newcastle Knights into their Australian Grand Final against Parramatta. Tonight, his elder brother and former half-back partner, Matthew, ranked not too far behind him when he signed for Wigan at the start of this season, will try to steer them into their own Grand Final by beating Bradford.
"It's a huge day for the family," says Matthew, older by two years and a key man at stand-off at Valley Parade today. "I'll be watching the match from Australia, of course, but the danger for me is that I get too wound up in the emotion of it. I've a Grand Final of my own to get to."
The elder Johns says that it will not pain him to miss the big occasion in his home country, having been forced out of Newcastle by salary cap restrictions. "I'd love to be there, but I don't feel like I'm missing out, because I'm lucky enough to have experienced it already, when Newcastle won in 1997. It would be quite something if we could both win our competitions, on opposite sides of the world, in the same season."
Johns will be back in Australia next season, having signed for Cronulla after getting his release from a second year at Wigan, because of illness in his wife's family. "There are some regrets about that," he admits. "I feel like I'm just settling in and enjoying my football and it's time to leave. But it's circumstances beyond my control. I know we wouldn't be comfortable staying here and I'm indebted to Maurice Lindsay for being understanding about it. He could have dug his heels in and made it much more difficult."
Frustratingly for the Wigan chairman, Johns has rediscovered his best form since his early return to Australia was confirmed. Like his brother, his rugby this season has been interrupted by injury, with a stubborn ankle problem that is still in the process of clearing up. Equally problematic was the transition from playing alongside a brother, with whom he had almost a telepathic understanding, to blending with two strangers – Adrian Lam and Andy Farrell – who were used to calling the shots themselves. His eventual success in doing that is underlined by the difficulty Wigan are having in replacing him. The worldwide shortage of quality stand-offs means they still have no idea who will play there next season. "It's been a new challenge," says Johns. "We all bring different strengths to the team and now we are putting those strengths into a team setting. We've worked out our roles between us, although Stuart Raper has a few little surprises up his sleeve for this one."
Between the three of them, Johns, Lam and Farrell have the distribution skills to stretch and snap any defence – and Wigan go into this match with the psychological boost of having twice beaten Bradford this season. "When we've played them, they have been free-flowing games, but this could be a little different. Bradford have got great power up front, but plenty of flair on the back of that," says Johns. "We'd love to beat them again and get the clear walk through to Old Trafford."
Should they do so, the phone lines to Australia will be running hot with mutual congratulations. "We've spoken a few times this week and he's sure he's going to be fit after that groin injury in the semi-final," Matthew says of Andrew. "There will be a lot of emotion for me watching Newcastle on Sunday morning, but I've got to keep a lid on it. If we both win, I might have a few beers on Sunday night on the strength of it."Reuse content