|Betfred Super League Grand Final|
|Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester Date: Saturday, 13 October Kick-off: 18:00 BST Coverage: Highlights on BBC Sport, commentary on BBC national and local radio and live scores on the BBC Sport website|
There has been one overriding narrative from the Wigan Warriors camp ahead of the Super League Grand Final against Warrington, sending Shaun Wane off on a high in his final game.
It’s an old cliche, but if you cut Wane in two the word ‘Wigan’ would probably be stamped through him like seaside rock.
The 54-year-old is set to end a 30-year association with his hometown club to take up a role with the Scottish Rugby Union, having filled almost every role from player to scout, academy coach to main man.
He is revered by the fans, the team and his coaching staff, but how has the man who won 2018 Super League Coach of the Year been able to juggle a close-knit relationship with his players at the DW Stadium in the ruthless world of elite coaching?
‘I love that interaction’
Wane’s experience as academy coach at Wigan brought him into contact with many of his current squad – and many other stars throughout Super League – at an early age.
He oversaw talent such as Sam Tomkins, Michael McIlorum, Josh Charnley, Sam Powell and Liam Farrell during his time with the academy, and then blooded young stars like Dom Manfredi, Joe Burgess and George Williams in his first-team role, so Wane has almost ‘father figure’ status among his squad.
“The one thing about my players is I love that interaction,” Wane told BBC Sport. “I get on very well with them and I’m very close to them and it makes me emotional speaking about them.
“I’m honest, I’m straight with them, tell them where I stand, deliver it in a good, positive way and help them get over it if it’s not so good. That’s how I’ve backed myself in my career.”
‘He’s someone I hold as a friend, not just a coach’
England full-back Tomkins is one of Wane’s major success stories, first emerging as a dynamic half-back and then a devastating full-back for both club and country.
His Wigan form led to him being snapped up by National Rugby League side New Zealand Warriors, and he spent two seasons in Auckland before returning to Wigan to be reunited with his old mentor.
He too departs at the end of the campaign to join Catalans Dragons, but is concerned only with success for Wane this autumn.
“He’s someone who sacrifices a lot to get himself and his team where he gets us to, it would be a nice send-off present to get him another gold ring,” Tomkins told BBC Sport.
“I’ll miss Shaun a lot. My playing career and Shaun’s coaching career have run side-by-side for a long time, and I’ve never been able to shake him (off), even when I went to New Zealand, he didn’t get off the phone to me.
“We’ve been close a long time, he’s someone I hold as a friend rather than a coach or a colleague. He’s someone I’ll be friends with forever, if I’ve got something going on in my life away from rugby I can phone Shaun.
“It’s special to have those relationships that last longer than anyone’s rugby career.”
‘Even in my late-20s, he made me a better player’
Although Wane would probably blush at the suggestion, England and Wigan skipper Sean O’Loughlin is convinced his longevity as a player and continued success is in part down to his gaffer.
O’Loughlin, who will be 36 by the time the 2019 season comes round, was already an established Test player when Wane started working with him as assistant and then head coach after Michael Maguire’s exit in 2011.
The pair have celebrated every domestic honour available, and even secured a World Club Challenge title against Cronulla in 2017 to go with the one Wane won as a player in 1987.
“He’s been a massive help to me in my career,” O’Loughlin said. “He’s always honest with you on your performance, and away from the game.
“When he got the head coach job, I was probably in my late 20s, and I still feel he made me a better player even at that stage of my career.
“He asked questions of me, made me think about my game a lot, and just constantly put me under good pressure to get better.
“When Waney got the academy job that was probably the big thing for him, to have an influence on the lads coming through to fill those jerseys in the first team.
“Even when he was assistant he’d had a big input. half the players in the team he’d brought through and automatically he had that friendship and relationship.”
‘He’s not scared of tough conversations, but he’s nice and relaxed’
It is not just the local lads who have come to admire and respect the passionate Wane.
Tommy Leuluai has enjoyed two separate spells at Wigan, either side of a stint back in his native New Zealand with the Warriors.
The 33-year-old has worked with some top-level bosses during his career from Stephen Kearney to Daniel Anderson, Brian Noble to Michael Maguire.
He believes his current boss’ secret is that he is the type of bloke you could go for a pint with.
“No doubt. He’s a genuine fella, a man’s man, and a good fella to know,” New Zealand international Leuluai added.
“He’s not scared of the tough conversations, he’s nice and relaxed to have a laugh with, but you definitely know when he’s [got something to say], he’s honest.
“Most players want their coach to be honest and tell them how they’re feeling. He doesn’t beat around the bush, we all know that but in the same sense he’s not too serious not to have a laugh when we’re training. He’s got a great balance.”
‘I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him’
The emotional bond between Wane and his players was never quite as evident as when winger Manfredi made his long-awaited comeback – coincidentally against Warrington last month during the Super 8s – after two years out through injury.
Neither Wigan’s 26-6 win against the Wire, nor Wane’s 54th birthday could overshadow his beam of delight that the 25-year-old had scored two tries and come through the game unscathed.
Manfredi’s career flourished following his introduction by Wane in 2013, and he was named in the 2016 Dream Team before injury struck.
“He’s a massive part of my career,” Manfredi said. “Shaun gave me my chance, my debut and I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him.
“It’s a massive thing with him leaving, we’re all gutted about it, but it’s the right thing for him,
“That’s why we have to go out and get the win for him, and if we don’t we’ve fallen short.”