Tony Smith has faith in senior service
Warrington coach hopes Wolves prove Old Trafford can be a country for old men
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Saturday 06 October 2012
If Wigan versus Warrington was the Grand Final that most neutrals wanted to see, and Leeds versus St Helens was the one they had already seen too often, then Leeds versus Warrington could be termed the old man's Grand Final. "It's no coincidence," said Jamie Peacock pointedly this week, "that the two teams with the most over-30s are in the final. You can't buy experience."
At 34, the Leeds prop has a vested interest in that philosophy. It is Warrington, however, who have invested heavily in that allegedly unpurchasable commodity.
The Wolves coach, Tony Smith, has given new contracts to sprightly seniors such as Adrian Morley, Lee Briers and Brett Hodgson on the basis that "if they're good enough, they're young enough".
In terms of specific Grand Final experience, there is no comparison –Leeds have been in four of the last five; Warrington, by contrast, have never been to Old Trafford.
"There's an old adage that you have to lose one to win one," says Smith warily. "We have to hope that's not true."
Despite that clear historical imbalance, Warrington are equally clear favourites to come out on top tonight, at least as far as the bookies are concerned. That is a tribute to the depth and quality of their squad; over the last two years as a whole they have been Super League's most consistent club, while the Rhinos' form has undergone wild fluctuations.
The Wolves also have players who have proved their match-winning qualities in other contexts, such as Challenge Cup finals – they have won three of the last four, with Briers and Hodgson outstanding – or in the case of Morley, NRL Grand Finals.
"We think that is going to help us to close the gap in Grand Final experience," says Smith.
There is also little doubt about Warrington's firepower. In particular, they outshine Leeds – and just about everyone else – when it comes to fashioning tries in their opponents' 20. With players like Briers, Richie Myler, Michael Monaghan and Stefan Ratchford queuing up, it is almost unknown for them to run out of ideas near the opposition try-line.
Leeds, on the other hand, have an enviable knack of scoring from long distance. Zak Hardaker, Ryan Hall, Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins are all custom-built for that.
Most of all, there is Danny McGuire, back from his one-match suspension. Although he is now much more than a support player and finisher, his return makes Leeds that much more potent from range.
That is why it would be rash to repeat the common annual mistake of tipping Leeds to lose at Old Trafford. They might have wilted under Warrington's assault in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley two months ago, but they are always likely to blossom at Old Trafford.
That can only increase the likelihood of it being a memorable Grand Final. Not for the first time, rugby league has need of one.
Too many of the headlines the game has made this season have been about clubs in financial trouble – with Castleford the latest victims this week – so a reminder of robust good health on the pitch would be timely.
Between them, Leeds and Warrington are certainly capable of providing it – possibly with a spectacular try deciding it one way or the other.
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