Why O’Loughlin will treat this final as his last

Sean O'Loughlin had to wait until 2010 for his first trophy
Sean O'Loughlin had to wait until 2010 for his first trophy

Sean O’Loughlin will be treating Saturday’s Challenge Cup Final as his last – and not just because of his age.

The England skipper, who turns 35 later this year, has approached every final the same way since experiencing an eight-year trophy drought earlier in his career.

A Champagne moment with Ben Flower after the World Club Challenge

A Champagne moment with Ben Flower after the World Club Challenge

After featuring in two finals within a few months in 2003-04, O’Loughlin and Wigan didn’t reach a decider until the 2010 Grand Final.

“At a young age I played in a Challenge Cup Final and a Grand Final; then it was seven or eight years before I played in another,” he said.

“So you don’t get chances to play in finals very often – you have to take the chance with both hands.”

The 2010 Grand Final was Wigan’s first final triumph since the 2002 Challenge Cup at Murrayfield.

O’Loughlin narrowly missed out on a place in Stuart Raper’s team after Kris Radlinski climbed off his sick-bed and played, despite struggling with a nasty foot infection throughout the week.

“It was my first year in the first team, and Stephen Wild and I got thrown in as the 18th and 19th men,” he recalls.

“Kris was a genuine doubt at one point, and two hours before kick off I thought, ‘I might be playing here’, but I didn’t think he would ever not play.

“I certainly wasn’t heartbroken – I was buzzing to be on the team picture!

“I never had any real thought that I might play in the game.”

O’Loughlin guided Wigan to Wembley victory in 2011 - their first at the London venue since 1995 – and they backed that up in 2013, beating this weekend’s opponents Hull FC.

“That defeat didn’t knock them off their stride and they have progressed a lot since 2013,” he said. “They’ve made some good signings and brought some good players through.

“Hull deserve to be higher than us in the table. They have been more consistent than us, but we are still two evenly matched sides.

“We are well aware we need to be good on Saturday to get the win and they’ll have to do the same.

“We got off to a good start by winning the World Club Challenge but since then the season has never really kicked off for us.

“It’s been stop-start because of injuries. In the last few months we have had a pretty steady team back but we still haven’t kicked into gear.

“In the last few weeks we have made huge steps forward, but we still need to be better on Saturday. If we could get a win it would be a pretty special thing to do and would put us in a great position to kick on in Super League.”

Despite being no stranger to the big occasion, O’Loughlin admits he does get “butterflies” before finals.

And while it will be the first trip to Wembley for many of the players, he is confident their experiences in Grand Finals and World Club Challenges will help.

“But there is something different (about playing at Wembley) and it’s hard to say what it is,” added O’Loughlin, who is expected to play on next season ahead of a move onto Wigan’s coaching staff.

“It’s just the occasion that makes you more emotional.”

O’Loughlin will walk out alongside Gareth Ellis, the English veteran who is hanging up his boots at the end of this year.

Hardly any modern players can say they’ve taken on Australia in a Great Britain jersey and been on the winning side, yet both of these forwards can say they did that together in 2006, when the Lions won 23-16 in Sydney.

“He is a legend of a player and legend of a bloke. It’s easy to chuck ‘legend’ around quite easily but it is genuine with Gaz,” the Wigan captain said.

“Playing alongside someone at Great Britain level gives you a better insight.

“You know what they are like playing against them for your club.

“But playing alongside them, in a Test match, you learn a lot about the character and what they are like.

“And he is one of those players you enjoy playing alongside.”