After 30 rounds and 23 wins, Wigan’s hopes of reaching a fifth Grand Final under Shaun Wane’s watch comes down to this.
Wigan, Castleford. A shoot-out to decide who will wake up on Saturday morning smiling, thinking of Old Trafford... and who will be putting on the fancy dress for their ‘Mad Monday’ end-of-season drinks.
Given the way the season has panned out – with the ‘treading water’ feel of the Super-8s – this is the first Wigan game I’ve really looked forward to since the match at St Helens in August!
Whatever the outcome, this will be an emotional one.
NRL-bound John Bateman and Ryan Sutton may or may not return to the DW. Sam Tomkins will, but as an opponent – while Wane’s future, in the short-term at least, will be in rugby union.
There are other figures departing, like Mark Bitcon and Matty Peet.
Less-known, but listen to the people that matter and they will tell you their contributions to Wigan’s success over the years have been significant.
Wigan’s eight-game winning run and the return of key players Tomkins, Thomas Leuluai and Sean O’Loughlin has swelled my confidence they can get the job done.
I’d want them to win, under any circumstance. With Wane going, I really hope they do.
I had no issues with how the Super League DreamTeam lined-up this week.
I could probably pick another XIII which would be nearly as strong – I’d be worried about the quality of the competition if I couldn’t.
O’Loughlin’s inclusion surprised him, and a few others; he’s been incredible at times – but he has also only played 18 games.
But two things to keep in mind.
Firstly, voting journalists are asked to lean heavily on form before the Super-8s split in July – by which point O’Loughlin had played 16 times.
And secondly... given the game’s evolution and how many clubs just rotate their props through the No.13 role, it’s hard to name three other loose forwards, never mind one who has been better!
It’s not just the tackling and aggression I miss about Micky McIlorum.
It’s his character, too. And I was reminded of that when he walked out for Catalans’ final home game with his two dogs – while team-mates around him took their children onto the pitch!
It’s the Championship Shield final between Featherstone and Leigh this weekend – the showcase decider for second-tier teams who didn’t reach the Qualifiers.
Except, for a showcase, it is turning into something of an embarrassment.
Featherstone could only field 16 players for their match last Sunday while Leigh had no subs at all.
On top of that, Centurions player Kevin Larroyer revealed on Twitter that “a few of us also played for free.”
He thanked fans who supported them, saying: “You don’t deserve this.”
He’s right, they don’t.
The fans have been short-changed.
But not by the blokes who took to the field – they deserve applauding – but by the management of a club given £500,000 as a parachute payment after their relegation from Super League.
Leigh admitted yesterday they had not paid six players who refused to accept new terms – how dare they want the wages they signed up for! - and had only nine available players for this weekend.
The final will go ahead, after the RFL granted them special dispensation to sign loan players and Wigan, St Helens and Castleford came to their rescue.
And so four young players who last weekend celebrated Under-19s Grand Final glory with the Warriors will, this weekend, prepare for a first-team final.
Surreal for those players. Farcical for the rest of us.
There was a story this week on the Press Association wires - a leading agency used by many news organisations - about Jermaine McGillvary signing a new deal with Huddersfield.
The RFL site used the story, too. Almost word-for-word.
The only difference was it took out the part when Giants chief executive Richard Thewlis revealed their request to make the Test winger - ‘the face of England’ - one of the RFL’s centrally-funded players was knocked back!
This is not a criticism of the RFL for editing the story, just a reminder that when you see terms like ‘news’ on an official website, it is not news, it is PR.
Last week, I moaned Sky Sports’ Golden Point is not being screened at the most important stage of the season.
Now I see tonight’s semi-final has just 15 minutes build-up. And I’ve seen Sky Sports adverts, promoting their own exclusive content for October, with no mention of the semis or Grand Final. Poor show.
Interesting statistic; of Wayne Bennett’s 24-man England squad, seven – a quarter – learned their craft at Wigan amateur clubs.
It’s a credit to the volunteers at St Pats, St Judes, Orrell St James, New Springs and all the others.