Revenge and farewells give emotional charge to Bulls

Rugby League: Underdogs Wigan capable of upsetting favourites in what promises to be classic conclusion to Super League's best season
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The Independent Online

We have been told so often that this is Super League's best season so far that the natural reaction is to try to look for reasons to deny it. The fact is, though, that in terms of quantity and quality of dramatic matches, 2003 has broken new ground and this evening at Old Trafford is the Grand Final it deserves.

A full house, the first-ever for the event, will see what promises to be a classic, contested by the two sides which have proved themselves the best in the competition.

Bradford have been the favourites to win it from the start and have spent much of the campaign on top of the table.

Wigan, on the other hand, looked in the spring, when they were ravaged by injuries, as though they might not even make the play-offs.

The way their young players performed then and the extra momentum they have found under the coaching of Mike Gregory over the last three months have turned what was shaping up as a forgettable season into a memorable one.

Both sides have extra incentives tonight. Bradford lost the Grand Final to St Helens last season under the most controversial of circumstances and vowed there and then that they would be back.

They have almost half a team of players departing after this match, so they and their colleagues will be drawing extra emotion from that. The Bulls are also bidding to become the first club in the summer era to do the double of the Challenge Cup and the Super League title in the same season.

Wigan would also achieve a landmark if they were to win, by becoming the first side from outside the top two to do so. That would give a new layer of credibility to the play-off system, by showing that it is possible to come through the pack and make up for ground lost earlier in the season.

Bradford are the side with the difficult decision to make, with their coach, Brian Noble, pondering whether to recall his captain, Robbie Paul, after six months out with a badly broken arm.

The indications are that he will, at least on the bench. "It would be a brave man who would leave Robbie out if he was fit, and he's trained very well this week and looked very sharp," Noble said.

Paul himself does not want to play merely for the sake of it. "If I feel I can't make a difference out there on the field, I won't be taking part in the game," he said. "I'm confident that I can add to the team, rather than just make up the numbers."

The game threatens to be a fierce confrontation up front, with Bradford's familiar direct style, based on the power of players like Joe Vagana, Stuart Fielden and Paul Anderson, being countered by Wigan's battle-hardened front-rowers.

There were eyebrows raised when Wigan signed the 33-year-old New Zealand Test prop, Quentin Pongia, in mid-season but he has belied his advancing years with some inspiring performances.

His experience - and that of Craig Smith alongside him - has helped to make Wigan tougher in the forwards than they have been for years - and that was Gregory's first target when he took over.

The one thing that really gives Wigan reason for optimism tonight, however, is that they have mastered the art of winning games, even when everything is not going right.

At Leeds last Friday, they lost several of the individual battles they would have expected to win, but still claimed the victory thanks to two stunning tries from Brian Carney, a player who is inspired at the moment.

Logic still says that this should be a game too far for Wigan, especially without Adrian Lam and with Andy Farrell playing on a dodgy knee, and that Bradford should say farewell to James Lowes and company by winning the Grand Final.

But nobody should be too surprised if Wigan snatch the spoils in the last of the season's dramatic finishes. That would be a fitting conclusion to the most satisfying Super League season so far.