IN 1998 Leeds Rhinos faced Wigan Warriors in the first Super League Grand Final and 45,553 turned up at Old Trafford to watch.
In two days’ time the same clubs will do battle in Super League’s 18th title showpiece and will be roared on by a record crowd of more than 73,000.
That is some measure of how the sport, or at least the Grand Final concept, has progressed since the move to summer and is testament to the pulling power of the two biggest clubs in the game.
The arguments over whether the champions should be the team that finishes top of the table or the winners of the Grand Final will rage on, but there’s no doubt whoever lifts the trophy at around 7.50pm on Saturday will deserve the glory.
Leeds finished top of the table and are bidding for an historic treble after also winning the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup at Wembley just six weeks ago, but there is little to chose between the teams, on paper or on the pitch.
Both teams finished the league campaign on 41 points, from 20 wins, nine defeats and a draw. Leeds have a slightly better attack, having scored 944 points to Wigan’s 798. But Wigan conceded fewer, 530 to Rhinos’ 650. The points difference between the sides was just 26 in Leeds’ favour.
Head to head, they have met four times this year and won two each. The aggregate score is Rhinos 87, Wigan 85. Leeds won both games at Headingley, Wigan were victorious at DW Stadium and the Magic Weekend in Newcastle.
Wigan may be the fresher of the two teams. Though they were involved in the World Club Series, which Leeds weren’t, that was way back in February.
Rhinos have not had a break since, but Wigan had three weekends off during the Challenge Cup and that could work in their favour.
Since the Challenge Cup final was moved to August, in 2005, it has proved incredibly difficult to win both that and the Grand Final, though
St Helens managed it in 2006 and Wigan did the same two years ago. Rhinos have actually done remarkably well to be as successful as they have been this year, considering the number of injuries they have had to key players at the business end.
They have been playing without a specialist hooker since Paul Aiton broke an arm two months ago, Jamie Jones-Buchanan has been sidelined for much of the campaign – and is now out until next year – and Stevie Ward and Liam Sutcliffe have also suffered season-ending injuries.
Mitch Achurch is another player dogged by injuries and Rhinos have looked to be out on their feet at times in their last two matches.
While Wigan have had relatively comfortable wins over Castleford Tigers and Huddersfield Giants, Leeds had to dig deep against Giants and St Helens, snatching both games in the final few minutes.
But, here’s the thing, they won both of them, when it seemed they were heading for defeat. Rhinos are battle-hardened, never say die and have big-game players who can come up with crucial plays at the right time.
Ryan Hall hasn’t had the best of seasons, but scored vital touchdowns against Giants and Saints. Kevin Sinfield’s first 40-20 kick of the year got Rhinos back into the contest last weekend.
Do they have another big game in them? That is the huge question, because if Leeds aren’t at their best, they will lose. Wigan, who have beaten Leeds on neutral ground during the last three Magic Weekends, know how to rattle Rhinos and prevent them from playing.
They will no doubt attempt to do that on Saturday and Rhinos will need to keep their patience and their composure, defend the way they have done the last two weekends and take what’s likely to be a limited number of opportunities when they come along.
This has already been one of the best seasons in Rhinos’ history and they are one win away from making it the greatest. Victory on Saturday would be the perfect farewell for departing trio Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield and believers in fate may think a Leeds win is written in the stars.