Long day in store for Warriors

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The Independent Online

It is almost six years since St Helens and Wigan last met in a major final, but tonight's collision at Knowsley Road will feel like the biggest game between the old rivals since then.

With a place at Old Trafford at stake, there will be nothing held back by two clubs whose seasons represent a fascinating contrast.

Saints spent much of the regular season looking capable of reclaiming their Super League crown, before going into a slump at the end. It is weeks since they have looked completely convincing, but they are fully fit today, with the exception of the departed Jason Cayless.

Win or lose, this will be the last home game for Sean Long, a player synonymous with Saints' successes over the last decade, who is leaving for Hull.

Bizarrely, he is preparing for his grand farewell with a book-signing in St Helens town centre this afternoon to launch his warts-and-all autobiography, which claims that Bradford as well as Saints players were implicated in the notorious betting scam for which he was suspended in 2004 – something which was denied by the Bulls yesterday.

Strolling along that particular stretch of Memory Lane hours before a big match seems a typically rum arrangement, but it would be just like Long to write a new chapter and bow out with his best game for months.

Whilst Saints were sweeping all before them early in the season, Wigan were stuttering along like a team without realistic play-off aspirations.

But, just like most sides coached by Brian Noble, they have got better as the season has gone on, culminating in a display at Hull KR last weekend that brought the play-offs alive.

Coach and club have yet to confirm that he will not be there next season — a decision on Wigan's part that looks harder and harder to justify – but it is almost as if the players have thrived on the uncertainty.

That applies in trumps to Sam Tomkins, the stand-off prodigy Noble was so cautious about playing early in the season. Since he got his regular place by default, following the season-ending injury to Tim Smith, Wigan have hardly looked back and go to Knowsley Road tonight without any lingering doubts about their ability to win there.

The England and former Leeds forward, Gareth Ellis, has been voted Wests Tigers' Player of the Year after his first season in Australia.

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