Wigan Warriors' Brad O'Neill ready to stare down boyhood idol Sam Tomkins and Catalans Dragons in Grand Final
Thirteen years later, having swapped his junior replica shirt for a dream place in the Warriors first team, O’Neill is preparing to head back to the same stadium tasked with denying Tomkins a fairy-tale ending to his playing career.
Former Wigan great Tomkins will take to the field for the last time on Saturday as he looks to inspire a first French Grand Final win – but lifelong Wigan fan O’Neill, pictured, has long since shed any loyalty to the Catalans Dragons man.
“I went to all those finals and Sam was one of my favourite players,” said O’Neill, a product of Wigan’s scholarship and academy programmes who has edged long-established No 9 Sam Powell off the starting teamsheet in a breakthrough 2023 campaign.
“I remember my first Grand Final in 2010, sitting behind the posts with my dad, a sell-out, and how it was bouncing in the Wigan end after we won.
“Sam and Sean O’Loughlin were the two players I most admired and I always hoped that one day I’d be part of the big games like them. Sam was always scoring tries and at the centre of things. It will be a bit surreal facing him in the Grand Final now.”
Born in Leigh, O’Neill started playing rugby at the age of five, rising steadily through the Wigan ranks to make his first-team debut against Wakefield in June 2021.
He starred in last season’s Challenge Cup final win over Huddersfield at Wembley and seized another opportunity earlier this season following an injury to Powell, going on to make the hooker position his own.
In June, he was rewarded with a new four-year contract, an indication of the potential seen in him by Wigan head coach Matt Peet, especially given the club’s capture of fellow number nine Kruise Leeming for the 2024 campaign.
O’Neill credits much of his emergence to the influence of Peet, who was head of youth when he first signed scholarship terms in 2017, and current assistant coach O’Loughlin, another club great who was integral to those final wins that O’Neill cheered on from the sidelines.
“Matty has always been a part of my journey at Wigan and he’s always steered me down the right path,” added O’Neill. “Being able to pick the brains of someone like Sean, who has so much knowledge and played in so many Grand Finals, also helps. Culture is always a big thing at Wigan and it goes right down to the bottom, to academy and scholarship. You learn it straight away and it becomes natural to carry it through to the first team. It’s a massive part of the success of the club.”
Having won this season’s League Leaders’ Shield, Wigan will start as narrow favourites to beat the French side and win their first Grand Final since 2018 – which marked Tomkins’ swansong in a cherry and white shirt. But there will be no room for sentiment for O’Neill, who is looking to inspire a new generation. He said: “My own story is proof that their own dreams are reachable.”