St Helens edge Wigan in a dramatic Grand Final in Hull

WITHOUT sounding too much like an acceptance speech, firstly we have to hand out some ‘thank yous.’

Pandemonium: James Graham celebrates uproariously at the full-time whistle as his final game in Super League ended with a dramatic Grand Final victory over Wigan Warriors at Hull FC’s KCom Stadium. (Picture: PA)

The Betfred Super League reached its conclusion last night in the unusual surroundings of an empty KCOM Stadium at Hull.

We all know the reasons why.

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However, the thanks must go to all those who enabled the competition to get to this very point; just a few months ago, many thought it might not even be possible and that could have been catastrophic for rugby league in this country.

St Helens celebrate with the trophy after winning the Betfred Super League Grand Final at the KCOM Stadium, Hull (Picture: PA)

From the tireless players who worked overtime after taking pay cuts, to the on- and off-field staff at all the clubs, the match officials, all those working diligently behind the scenes at the RFL and Super League, the loyal broadcasters and sponsors, the sport undoubtedly owes them a debt of gratitude.

Covid-19 or otherwise, though, some things do not change: there can only ever be one winner.

In 2020, that is St Helens.

Still, more thanks needs to be given; with the last 80 minutes of this bizarre and surreal campaign, both Saints and Wigan Warriors combined to serve up a genuine feast, an enthralling and, at times, brutal encounter worthy of the words ‘Grand’ and ‘Super’.

Wigan Warriors Jake Bibby (centre) celebrates scoring his sides first try during the Betfred Super League Grand Final at the KCOM Stadium, Hull. (Pictures: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

It was arguably the greatest final since they started back in 1998, the top competition’s two leading sides rightly contesting a classic.

But the finish. What about the finish?

With both relentless teams almost impregnable – there had been not a single try until Wigan’s Jake Bibby finally breached Saints in the 65th minute – the scores were tied 4-4 heading into the 80th minute.

But Saints’ Theo Fages – whose drop goal attempt moments earlier had trickled dead to gift Wigan a seven-tackle set – was penalised for interference.

It meant Zak Hardaker was left with a 46m kick to essentially win the title for table-topping Wigan.

The former Leeds Rhinos star who had seen his touchline conversion attempt of Bibby’s try, hit the crossbar, could only watch as this kick dropped agonisingly wide.

Saints moved upfield. With 11 seconds remaining, desperate Tommy Makinson tried an unlikely drop goal shot from 40m out.

It hit an upright. All the more unlikely it bounced off the turf and over the crossbar.

Jack Welsby, the young centre, followed up and – in the most dramatic of circumstances – managed to nudge past Bevan French and get his hand to the ball before it rolled dead.

Cue pandemonium. Video replays. Checks. And finally confirmation.

James Graham, the old warrior, sank to his knees, bowing out a champion again after losing seven successive Grand Finals - five with Saints, two in the NRL - since his only previous victory in 2006.

That other old warrior Sean O’Loughlin could not have the same send-off – there can only be one winner remember – but, to a man, every Saints player embraced the Wigan captain who, at 38, had become the oldest ever Grand Finalist in his last-ever game.

Matters were so tight and ferociously fought that we witnessed the only tryless first half in the 23-year history of Grand Finals.

It was almost a scoreless first period until Lachlan Coote slotted a penalty after the interval hooter had sounded, the St Helens full-back having been poleaxed by Morgan Smithies’ needless shoulder charge.

It would be easy to write it was the sort of game the ‘purists would love’.

Nonsense. Every rugby league fan should have loved that: intense, hard-hitting, compelling, breathless, brilliant.

Both sides’ defence was simply outstanding. It is hard to pick out one definitive tackle. There were so many try-savers, so many shuddering collisions.

And let’s not forget, with the game so tight throughout, the stakes grew so much higher with every minute that ticked by; miss a tackle, switch off for a moment, and you could be remembered as the player who lost a Grand Final.

Graham sacked Jackson Hastings early on but then looked like being ruled out just four minutes in after a late hit in the ribs by Tommy Leuluai. The veteran England prop dusted himself down. Battle had commenced.

With his old mate James Roby directing – the peerless hooker won man-of-the-match – Saints applied all the pressure initially.

All Hastings could do was kick from deep. But Wigan’s defence was ruthless.

And in French they had a player most likely to come up with something special.

Twice the Australian full-back looked like creating chances but Saints were up to the task, too, Welsby hitting him with one perfectly-timed smash and then Hardaker - playing on the wing during Joe Burgess’ HIA - somehow being stopped as well.

At the start of the second half, French tipped on a pass to Bibby but the winger could not take it in.

Saints’ Zeb Taia, also playing the final match of his career, had a try chalked off in the 53rd minute but chances were so few and far between.

Coote levelled matters up in the 73rd minute after Hastings - a Grand Final loser with Salford Red Devils last year - hit Fages high in front of the posts.

Makinson came in off his wing to crunch French and shut down another chance, Woolf jigging in his seat at that point.

It was the Saints coach jigging at the end, too. Just.

Wigan: French; Bibby, Hardaker, Gildart, J Burgess; Leuluai, Hastings; Bullock, Powell, Singleton, Isa, Farrell, Partington. Substitutes: Club, Greenwood, O’Loughlin, Smithies.

St Helens: Coote; Makinson, Naiqama, Welsby, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Walmsley, Roby, Graham, Taia, Bentley, Knowles. Substotutes: Peyroux, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Lees, Amor.

Referee: Chris Kendall (Huddersfield).

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