“I’ve said it for years… the last game of the season should be the most important,” said Sky Sports commentator Mike Stephenson.
After years of first-past-the-post championship victories, long stretches of inconsequential league fixtures and the less-heralded Premiership competition taking the end-of-season attention, it was on 24 October 1998 that ‘Stevo’ finally got his way. And rugby league has never looked back in the 23 years since.
When Andy Farrell and Iestyn Harris led out Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos respectively for the first ever Super League Grand Final, the sport was moving into a new era. Sure, the beginning of Super League itself had come two years earlier, with rugby league making the move to a summer sport, but the inaugural league decider at Old Trafford gave us a new showpiece which has become the biggest night in the calendar. Even the annual trip down to Wembley for the Challenge Cup final has had to take a back seat.
It might not have been ideal for the traditionalists at the time, but it was as close as they were ever going to get to a smooth introduction to the brave new world. The best two teams in the league had emerged from the top-five playoffs.
John Monie’s Wigan had returned to the head of the table for the first time since 1995/96, the final season of winter rugby league being the last of a seven-year stretch of back-to-back titles. After St Helens and Bradford Bulls had collected the first two Super League titles, the Grand Final era began with the Warriors back on top of the sport. For Leeds this was a shot at their first league championship in 24 years after a wonderful season under the late, great Graham Murray.
On a damp night in Manchester, Richie Blackmore scored the first try in Grand Final history, bursting through a two-man tackle from close range after Leeds had shipped the ball to the right edge. Wigan’s response was emphatic, Jason Robinson dancing through the challenge of Darren Fleary to cross as the Rhinos were slow to reform after a Warriors set move.
Farrell converted from in front and would add a pair of second-half penalties in a tight, low-scoring affair which would fast become a trend for Grand Final night. Wigan’s 10-4 triumph was the first of 11 matches in the 24-year history of the event to be won by a team scoring fewer than 20 points.
Over the years there have been further stunning deciders. St Helens’ 8-6 win in a thriller against Bradford in 1999 was as compelling as it was controversial, their 19-18 victory in a 2002 rematch being just as questionable thanks to an alleged voluntary tackle by Chris Joynt in the game’s last act. Single scores have often been all that has separated sides, not least in the last two Betfred Grand Finals as Saints edged out Wigan and Catalans Dragons.
There have also been heroes made, with Rob Burrow’s pair of Harry Sunderland awards in 2007 and 2011, Dom Manfredi’s incredible comeback double in 2018, and, most memorably of all, Jack Welsby’s after-the-hooter intervention of 2020.
The Grand Final has become the centrepiece of any rugby league season and one of the most eagerly anticipated dates of the sporting year. Summers just weren’t the same without it.