Sport possesses the most magnificent ability to transport us away from all of our worries and problems like nothing else and never have we been more thankful for that than this year. But not even the most creative of script-writers could have pieced this ending together to a Super League season which didn’t even look like it would finish at one stage.
This was, to put it bluntly, rugby league’s Agüero moment. Only in 2020, the wildest and most unpredictable of years, could a Grand Final have ever been decided in such a fashion. That will be of no consolation to Wigan Warriors of course, who will probably still be in shock for days to come when they try to comprehend how the Super League title slipped through their fingertips.
It is perhaps cruel that Bevan French, Wigan’s best player all season, was the man who paused for a split-second and allowed Jack Welsby to touch down to score the winning try after the full-time hooter had sounded, seconds after Tommy Makinson’s drop goal hit the posts.
But sporting drama like this does not care for compassion or fairytale finishes.
“To chase things down and compete on every play, they’re things we talk about all the time, playing until the last minute,” the victorious St Helens coach, Kristian Woolf, revealed. “But to do that and get a result like this.. outstanding. I don’t know if you’ll see a better game of footy than that.”
For 65 minutes, you felt the moment which ultimately ensured back-to-back Super League titles for St Helens was ever going to arrive. Neither of rugby league’s two great rivals were willing to relent an inch in what had already become one of the great Grand Finals before the chaos had even begun to unfold in the final moments.
In a season when rugby league’s very existence has hung in the balance, perhaps it was always going to be fine margins which determined the champions of a year nobody will ever forget. It looked as though Jake Bibby’s try, the first of the final as he squeezed in at the corner with 15 minutes remaining, was going to be that moment.
How foolish to think that was going to be the case, and that this St Helens side, the first team to defend the title in almost a decade, would fade away. Having scored the only points of the first half from the kicking tee, the only time in history the Grand Final has been try-less at the break, Lachlan Coote was on hand nine minutes later to level the game at 4-4.
But the drama was only just beginning. The frantic final few minutes saw St Helens slice a drop goal attempt wide, before Zak Hardaker – who earlier hit the stanchion when attempting to convert Bibby’s try – fell just short with a penalty attempt that would have, in all likelihood, secured the title for Wigan. It was, on this night of fine margins, just narrowly wide.
Prior to all of that - and before the madness of the final seconds - both sides had played their part in a Grand Final which you simply could not take your eyes off.
There was drama, tension, physicality and just one act of scoring, when Coote’s penalty made it 2-0 at half-time after an error from the Warriors.
For nearly half an hour of engrossing, relentless rugby after half-time, it looked as though that might actually be enough. But when Bibby scored, St Helens needed something else. Something the Warriors, whose defensive line never looked as though it would be breached all night, couldn’t handle. How it happened, though, defies belief.
“It was surreal,” the crestfallen Wigan coach, Adrian Lam, reflected. “Even now, I want to rewind it … it’s so weird. We’re heartbroken. We’re devastated.”
Makinson’s drop goal as the hooter sounded bounced off the post. French, so often cool and composed, seemed certain to take the ball and send us to extra-time: but he blinked at the most crucial moment.
The ball bounced away from him, and teenage centre Welsby reacted quickest. There wasn’t even time to take the conversion. But it didn’t matter.
And as the celebrations began and the chaos began to sink in, so too did the fact that all of that meant victory in the final game of the career of James Graham, but defeat too for Sean O’Loughlin’s finale.
Yet St Helens’ players, minutes after winning the title, still found time to form a guard of honour for O’Loughlin as he left the field one last time. Sport, eh? The sanctuary of salvation for so many of us throughout this turbulent year. Let’s hope that in an ever-changing world, that is one thing that never changes.
Wigan French; Bibby, Hardaker, Gildart, Burgess; Leuluai, Hastings; Bullock, Powell, Singleton, Isa, Farrell, Partington. Interchange Clubb, Greenwood, O’Loughlin, Smithies.Try Bibby
St Helens Coote; Makinson, Naiqama, Welsby, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Walmsley, Roby, Graham, Taia, Bentley, Knowles. Interchange Peyroux, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Lees, Amor. Try Welsby Goals Coote 2
Referee C Kendall.