The Grand Final experience has come full circle for Adrian Morley.
Fourteen years on from appearing in the first-ever Old Trafford showpiece with Leeds Rhinos, the juggernaut prop returns this evening with the hope of inspiring Tony Smith’s Warrington Wolves to glory in their maiden appearance against his former club.
The story is not only a couple of bookends, mind you, given a pair of notable achievements in the interim too.
As the summer era’s greatest British export to Australian rugby league, Morley won an NRL Grand Final with Sydney Roosters in 2002 before, three years later, featuring in a cameo loan spell for Bradford Bulls in their success over reigning champions Leeds.
That saw him become the first Englishman to win Grand Finals on both sides of the hemisphere while tonight – at 35 years and 149 days – he will also become the oldest player to take part in a Super League title-decider.
He surpasses current Huddersfield Giants boss Paul Anderson who was aged 34 years and 355 days when the fellow prop played with St Helens against Hull FC in the 2006 affair.
So, it’s fair to say Morley’s career beholds plenty of intriguing statistics when it comes to these exalted matters.
Let’s not forget, he has also won a record 50 international caps.
However, tonight’s game will be all the more special for the Warrington captain considering, at one point last year, he thought his excellent career would be cut short by a serious eye injury.
“No one could put a finger on exactly what was wrong with it and I saw a number of specialists,” he recalled.
“I remember sitting down with Tony (Smith) and he said ‘Look, I don’t want it to be and I know you don’t want it to be, but this could be career-ending’.
“No one could diagnose what it was and there was some real dark moments there.
“One said don’t play if you still had double vision – which I did – but thankfully another specialist had a look, did an op’ and it’s been really good since then.
“I then had a problem with my arm this season which caused some neck problems so I’ve had a frustrating time.
“It’s not been a vintage year by my standards but I feel I’ve played a part in some games and there’s another one to go.”
He says it’s not been “vintage” yet Morley did help Warrington to a third Challenge Cup final in four years and now stands just 80 minutes away from bringing them their first league title since 1955.
“Yeah, put like that, to win two of the three trophies on offer, if you include the League Leaders’ Shield, it would be a great year,” he smiled.
“But we know how tough Leeds are. It feels great to be back at Old Trafford. We’ve been threatening to make a Grand Final for a few years now.
“In particular last year we thought we had a fantastic chance but it was Leeds who put a stop to that (in qualifying semi-final).
“This year, though, we’ve been really consistent and finally made it which is a bit of a relief as well as being an exciting time.
“I’m really pleased for everyone involved in the club, particularly Simon Moran who has put a lot of money into the Wolves and this is a great reward for him.”
The millionaire music promoter has bankrolled Warrington’s bid to join the elite for some time now and his investment in signing the likes of stellar quality such as Morley, Richie Myler, the Monaghan brothers and Ryan Atkins seems to be paying off.
When Morley was first at Old Trafford in 1998, however, he was just a burgeoning 21-year-old second-row, still making his name.
Hot-tempered but a fierce ball-carrier and hard-hitter, he was in Graham Murray’s Leeds side that took part in the inaugural event.
Leeds, with Iestyn Harris winning Man of Steel that year, were eventually edged 10-4.
Morley recollected: “It (the Grand Final) was a new concept back then. We had a few Aussies in our team (Brad Godden, Marc Glanville, Jamie Mathiou) and our coach was an Aussie too.
“They tried to explain just how big a deal it is over in Australia and the play-off system was really exciting. It was the top five then and we’d had a good year. We’d finished second and made the Grand Final.
“I remember it being a terrible night – as it normally is Grand Final night – but we’d been playing some really good rugby league.
“I don’t think the conditions really suited the way we were playing but we’d beaten Wigan twice that year. There was not much in the final itself – one try apiece but they kicked a few goals.
“There was 42,000 there but the atmosphere was still incredible and it’s just got bigger and better every year since.
“The Grand Final’s here to stay now but at the time no one knew what to expect.
“The English lads did need a little convincing. We used to have the old top eight Premiership Trophy which was played at Old Trafford but it was just an add-on.
“It was still great and people still tried to win it but it didn’t have the same prestige as a Grand Final.
“I was real pleased to be playing in the first one. I didn’t think I’d still be around this many seasons down the line but it’s exciting to be back with Warrington.”
Indeed, Wigan second-row Lee Gilmour, who has just left Huddersfield for Castleford, is the only other player still running around now from that 1998 final.
After taking the Australian game by storm when he moved to Roosters in 2001, Morley savoured his first Grand Final victory when they thrashed New Zealand Warriors 30-8 in only his second year.
Morley – who also played in losing sides in 2002 and 2003 – admitted: “Over in Australia, unless you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to portray just how big a deal the Grand Final is.
“The sport is absolutely huge in Sydney and they do the Grand Final right; the whole build-up and hype is just incredible.
“The English atmosphere is better though. There may have been 80 odd thousand but I much preferred Wembley or Old Trafford where the fans were more vocal.
“But the Roosters had not won it for 27 years so that was special.”
When the Sydney side failed to make the play-off series in 2005, they allowed Bradford, whose coach Brian Noble was also in charge of Great Britain, to bring him back and keep him fit for the forthcoming Tri-Nations.
Morley played six games to help fire the Bulls to their fifth successive Grand Final and duly starred against his former employees.
Fellow prop Andy Lynch, who had been ever-present, had to miss out and Morley said: “It was disappointing for him but just one of those things and he got a ring.
“But who would have thought then that Bulls wouldn’t make a Grand Final again in all this time?”
Morley, back in the England squad once more, admits winning tonight would surpass that occasion seven years ago.
“It was still a fantastic experience but it was just the circumstances,” he said.
“Because I didn’t toil with those boys for the full year I just felt a little bit of an imposter at the end.
“To have played for Warrington all year and go all the way now would definitely be higher than the Bradford one but it’s going to be a massive game ahead.”