James Graham and Sean O’Loughlin bid farewell to rugby league last Friday, with a superb Super League grand final providing a fitting backdrop for their retirement. St Helens retained their Super League crown with an 8-4 victory over Wigan Warriors at Hull’s KC Stadium, with extra time needed to settle the issue.
Graham has been one of the outstanding forwards of his generation. He has a strong claim on being one of the greatest British players of all time, not least for the impact he made in the NRL. While Sam Burgess soaked up the celebrity that the Australian rugby league can bring, Graham was much more about what went on out on the field.
The 35-year-old Scouser with Cumbrian roots has been a mainstay of the NRL with Canterbury Bulldogs and latterly the St George Illawarra Dragons, but it is probably his 228 games for St Helens for which he will be most remembered, at least in the UK.
Former Leeds Rhinos and England prop Jamie Peacock, himself one of the greatest forwards of recent years, found Graham inspiring – both as a rival at club level and as a team-mate on the international stage.
He wrote recently in his column for the Daily Mirror: "He made me want to become a better player - that’s the best compliment I can give him. He was always ultra-competitive and very fit, but the thing that made him stand out was his ability to play with the ball like a third half-back."
A humble man, despite his assertive self-confidence on the field, Graham’s sense of earthy reality was perhaps encapsulated by the way he wore his Everton shirt at an England players’ training session in Australia.
The win for Saints also assuaged some of the pain that Graham felt in 2011, when, in his last appearance for St Helens before heading to Australia, the prop was on the losing side in the club’s fifth successive grand final defeat. He also captained the Saints that day against Leeds, and departed Down Under never knowing that one day he would get the chance to put things right.
No wonder that he showed such raw and fiery emotions at the end of the game. He had won only one title previously, in 2006 with Saints, and was on the losing side with the Bulldogs in the 2014 NRL grand final.
In many ways, it was a shame that Sean O’Loughlin had to bow out with a defeat, but at least it came in a suitably thrilling way on the biggest stage currently possible under Covd-19 restrictions.
O’Loughlin, the nephew of Wigan great and current Ireland rugby union coach Andy Farrell and cousin of England union fly half Owen Farrell, was one of the most complete players ever to grace a rugby field in either code of the game.
The loose forward, who also played at prop, hooker, halfback, stand off and second row during his career for the Warriors and England, could execute any skill almost perfectly. He collected plenty of honours during his long career too, and remained a lynchpin of his national team.
A one-club man with the Warriors, it is perhaps a shame that the 38-year-old never tested himself in the NRL like Graham. O’Loughlin has spent 19 years with his hometown club, winning Super League titles in 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2018, as well as the 2017 World Club Challenge and the Challenge Cup in 2011 and 2013. He was also named in the Super League Dream Team on seven occasions.
The way that the Saints players formed a tunnel of applause for the Wigan great after last Friday’s final was a fitting and sporting tribute. The only thing missing from the farewell to such a great duo was, of course, a crowd. It is a shame that these two legends could not say goodbye to Super League in front of a packed Old Trafford.
But at least they got to bow out on an occasion that summed up the drama and intensity of rugby league at its best. After 80 intense minutes of battling had seen the scores tied at 4-4, extra time was required.
The Saints secured victory after Wigan’s Zak Hardaker missed an attempt at a penalty goal. St Helens took the ball upfield and ended their set with Tommy Makinson taking a pot shot at a drop goal.
The outside back’s attempt struck the woodwork, only to rebound favourably for the chasing Jack Welsby, who showed great strength and commitment to beat the competition to the ball and touch down for a golden point try.
It was one of the most dramatic endings to a grand final ever. That such drama provided a backdrop to the final bows of two rugby league legends was entirely appropriate.
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