Wherever you look in the Warrington team that Tony Smith will put on the Old Trafford field for the Super League Grand Final this evening, there is evidence in support of his promise that selection owes everything to form and nothing to reputations.
Smith is likely to leave out two perfectly fit Australian internationals and, in the starting front row, he will play not the Test stars Adrian Morley and Garreth Carvell but a man who has had the most troubled 12 months.
It was in last year’s Grand Final that Paul Wood suffered one of the game’s most notorious injuries and went into a spiral of depression that led him briefly to contemplate suicide. An accidental collision during the defeat by Leeds resulted in him losing a testicle, a painful event that he seemed at first to be shrugging off with typically macho humour. He was prone to point out: “I’ve still got one left.”
In an interview for the Rugby League’s State of Mind charity, he admitted: “I was loving it at first – people were ringing me up for interviews, even American radio stations. But once that had stopped, that’s when I started spiralling, really.”
Previously diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Wood found his deepening depression put his marriage under pressure. For a time, he dated a glamour model, Holly Henderson, previously to be found on the arm of Mario Balotelli.
With hindsight, it was not so much glamour which had come into his life as chaos. “I just had a bad day one day and thought ‘What’s the point?’ – a 20-minute period when I wasn’t thinking straight.”
It did not seem to bode well for the new Super League season, but Wood has pulled out of his depression with some of the best form of his career, saying that this has been his most enjoyable time in the game for the last 10 years.
Thus it is that he will be starting the match at Old Trafford, rather than filling the substitute’s role in which he had sometimes seemed trapped.
Mickey Higham, Stefan Ratchford and Simon Grix do not have as dramatic a story to tell, but all of them might have expected to be predominantly bench players this season. Higham, however, has been voted Warrington’s Player of the Year, and has been starting ahead of the accomplished Michael Monaghan.
It is an arrangement that seems to suit both players. “I’ve learnt a lot from him,” says Higham, one of the indestructibly cheerful stalwarts of the code. “I don’t know if he’s learnt much from me.”
Ratchford could say the same about Brett Hodgson, a former Man of Steel whom he is likely to keep out today.
Wigan’s side has not evolved in the way most experts expected either. Some of the positions that were predicted to be potential weaknesses have turned out to be strengths.
At centre, for instance, fans despaired of replacing George Carmont satisfactorily. In the understated craftsmanship of Darrell Goulding and the physical presence of Iain Thornley – back from a sojourn in rugby union – they have found a combination that works.
Likewise the half-back partnership of Blake Green and Matty Smith, was not one which was anticipated with great excitement, but one which has got better and better.
Much, though, will inevitably hinge on two players. Sam Tomkins is playing his last match for Wigan before departing for the NRL and, if the scriptwriters have their way, will have one of his irresistible games.
The man Tomkins calls “Wigan’s best player” – the captain and loose forward, Sean O’Loughlin, has been declared fit after an Achilles injury and they need him to be at his best.
Doubts still linger over whether Wigan are truly an exceptional enough side to become the first since St Helens in 2006 to win the double of Challenge Cup and Super League. On paper, perhaps not.
Warrington have their own history to overcome. The last time they could call themselves champions was in the era of Brian Bevan and Harry Bath in 1955 and they have won only one of 10 major finals against Wigan.
That will count for less than which side will control the ball better in what could well be an outstanding Grand Final.
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