Warrington have the chance to come of age when they take on Wigan in the 19th Super League Grand Final, according to coach Tony Smith.
It is seven years since Smith relinquished his job with England to take on the task of turning the under-performing Wolves into a major force and he has so far helped them to three Challenge Cup victories and two League Leaders’ Shields.
However, the big prize still eludes them after two Grand Final runners-up spots and Smith says that only victory at Old Trafford would enable them to be ranked alongside the big boys of Super League.
Wigan, Leeds, St Helens and Bradford are the only clubs to have taken the title in the 20 years of Super League while it is 61 years since Warrington were last crowned champions.
“We’re not quite one of the big boys until we start to win the big one,” Smith said. “We’re in there competing at the moment but we need to nail one of these at some stage.”
Smith is the only man to guide two different clubs to the Grand Final, having been there with Leeds three times, and on Saturday will break the record for most coaching appearances he currently shares with Brian Noble, who took Bradford to Old Trafford five times from 2001 to 2005.
Wigan will also be record-breakers by eight o’clock on Saturday night if the Wolves get their revenge for their 30-16 loss in 2013 and condemn their opponents to a sixth Grand Final defeat.
The Warriors currently share the record for most defeats with St Helens, while coach Shaun Wane is desperately hoping to avoid a hat-trick after being on the losing end in 2014 and 2015.
“We’re trying to fix it because the last two (Grand Finals) have been defeats,” said Wane.
“So we want to do something different and we’ve changed a few things so the players know this is different and we expect a different result on Saturday.”
It is perhaps a sign of the pressure Wane is under that he is giving his injured captain Sean O’Loughlin every chance to prove his fitness.
The Warriors have lived dangerously for the last month, demonstrating remarkable fortitude to stay in the game long enough to snatch victories over Hull (twice) and Warrington, and Wane takes even more pride from the fact that it is essentially a home-grown team that he has taken to the brink of glory.
Lewis Tierney, Jake Shorrocks, Oliver Gildart and Joe Bretherton, all thrown in because of injury to experienced players, are relatively fresh out of the academy but more than holding their own in exalted company.
“I’m happy with what we’re doing,” Wane said. “To get that win against Hull in the final few minutes was outstanding, especially with such a young team.
“Ten of our 17 have come through our system and they’re Wigan-born lads. That’s going back to the years of the Eighties when we were really strong and had a good influx of Wigan lads in that team.
“I think we’re in good shape as a club, especially when you consider who we’ve got coming back.”
Smith is somewhat envious of Wigan’s unending conveyor belt of talent but has been delighted with his players’ efforts this season.
“This group is unique to any other year that I’ve had,” he said. “Are they capable, is there something I can see in these people? Yeah, I think they’ve got a real determination and a lot of character that’s certainly showed throughout this season.
“I think Wigan have shown a lot of character lately too. They’ve been under the pump and had to work hard without a couple of their star players as well.
“They’ve handled their injuries really well, although I’ve got to say a lot of the players who will be on the park on Saturday would be in their strongest 17.
“I think their development of young players is sensational, really admirable. That’s what we’re striving to do and we’re touching on that at this moment. Some of our younger players are better prepared now.”