Exclusive: Inside the inner sanctum of Shaun Wane's final victory as Wigan coach
Phil Wilkinson was the was the only journalist inside the victorious Old Trafford dressing room on Saturday. Here is how Wigan celebrated...
They forgot one thing.
They had pizzas and burgers on tables and beers in big ice buckets. Water bottles and Red Bull and fruit.
Their kit and suits were all accounted for, the balls and pads bagged up, the treatment tables folded away, the medical supplies stacked up.
But nobody brought a bottle opener.
John Bateman uses his teeth, as if he is oblivious to how expensive Australian dentists are, while Romain Navarrete tries to twist a bottle top off with a pair of scissors, and fails.
And so Sam Tomkins – full-back, leader, inspiration – takes on a new role for his team-mates, for his mates. That of chief bottle opener.
‘Give ‘em here,’ he says, taking one bottle and holding it at right-angles to another, using the teeth of one cap to prise open the other.
Is there no end to this man’s skills?
Others try to emulate him but fail, and so Sam stays there, opening bottle after bottle, letting the tops ping from his hand and ricochet off the low ceiling.
There’s no music, no sound. Only the clinking of bottles, the universal sign for ‘cheers’, as the players – some stripped of their shirts, most stripped of their shorts – sit on benches which occupy two walls, forming an inverted ‘L’. Their names and pictures are on posters above the suits that hang on pegs.
Then, after they’ve taken pulls on their beers, chatter begins. Two photographers and staff filter in. Director Kris Radlinski organises people like the great full-back he once was, and they press themselves against the other two walls.
And then there is a cheer from outside, which spills in through the door as Sean O’Loughlin carries the Super League trophy into the room. Shaun Wane follows.
‘Is everyone here?’ he asks.
‘Just waiting for Faz,’ someone replies.
And then the Ginger Pearl rushes in, takes a beer. Takes his seat.
‘Lads, I just want to say...’ says Wane, his deep voice carrying through the room. ‘This is going to be tough.’
And it is, as twice he has to stop, to swallow, to breathe, to choke back tears as he delivers his final victory speech as Wigan coach.
‘I just want to say thanks to all my staff, past and present, for all they’ve done over the years. But the main one is for you, the players.
What you have done tonight has been outstanding. You’ve made it a dream.’
All eyes are on him and you swear you would hear a pin drop.
‘When I left Worsley Hall to do this, I so badly wanted to do something, and I have. And you’ve helped me do that.’
His voice cracks.
‘The memories that I have,’ he finishes. ‘I would die a happy man.’
There is silence, for a second, maybe two, as they digest his words.
And then Wane grabs a bottle and says, ‘So let’s have a drink’, and the room erupts into a spontaneous cheer.
Wane moves to a drum on the floor and there are yells. They know whats coming.
He starts banging the beat of their winning song, which everyone chants as they spray beer at each other and at Wane and then – on cue – as the final cheer fades, the music from a single speaker kicks in.
The photographers herd them into a corner for a quick group picture, and then they peel away and retake their seats. The trophy is passed among the players and they pose for pictures and selfies.
“When we did this in 2016 it was unbelievable,” says George Williams. “But this is a fairytale.”
It’s a word repeated in other interviews, by other people.
Wane had said it would be blood and sweat which wrote their script, not fate. He was right.
And nobody embodied that more than Dom Manfredi, who went off to have stitches in a cut on his eyelid and returned to score the match-sealing try.
“When Dom went over, it was such a tight game, and it was so emotional – you cheer, you cry, you don’t know what to do,” said Joe Greenwood, who arrived at the club mid-season.
“I’ve only been here a few months and already the lads are like family to me.”
Wane leaves to do his final media conference and Dan Sarginson is asked whether he, too, would speak to the national press. He agrees.
Players begin drifting out for showers, squeezing past a knot of players who didn’t figure, either through injury or competition for places. Five – Taulima Tautai, Joe Burgess, Willie Isa, Gabe Hamlin and Liam Marshall – received winners’ rings.
“All the finals are unique in their own way, but there’s something about this one... it’s the end of an era,” said Farrell. “Waney hasn’t just coached us, he’s looked after us. There’s something special about this one compared to the others.”
For Tony Clubb, there hasn’t been any others. He missed the 2016 Grand Final victory with a neck injury and in the two previous finals, which he played in, Wigan lost.
“This is a special moment for me,” said the big prop.
“We felt like Warrington couldn’t break us down but because of the score, it was nervous – and then when Dom scored at the end it was unreal. I’m made up for him after what he’s been through.
“I was next to Batty and I hugged him and just broke down.
“I’m happy twice over because I’m happy we won, and I’m happy for Waney and all those are leaving. D’you know what I mean?”
We do, Clubby. We all do.