|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; live text coverage on the BBC Sport website|
“It’s always your year…” so the jeering terrace chant starts. “Just like the last one, it’s always your year.”
It is a ditty familiar to Warrington Wolves who, as three times Grand Finalists, have left Old Trafford without a trophy to show on each occasion.
Saturday’s visit to the home of Manchester United, where they will face Wigan in the Super League showpiece, is a chance to put that right and end the 63-year wait for a domestic championship.
‘It’s a really special time’
Not even past form can dull the excitement of a Grand Final week, as Warrington prepare for a fourth trip along the M62 in the past seven years.
England full-back Stefan Ratchford is an ever-present in the Wire’s treble of woes, but remains enthusiastic about the opportunity ahead.
“It’s a really special time, there aren’t many players who get to enjoy it,” he told BBC Sport. “Here we are for the fourth time.
“Looking back over the previous three results, it’s not been a happy hunting ground for us, but we’re going to do all we can to put that right.
“We’re really privileged but we’re not happy just being here, it’s something we want to change.”
‘We don’t consider ourselves nearly men’
Warrington’s first Grand Final against Leeds Rhinos in 2012 set the tone for subsequent visits, as an impressive first-half display – 14-14 at the break – was overshadowed by eventual defeat in the second half.
On returning in 2013, Warrington led Wigan 16-2, but an injury to Joel Monaghan and subsequent long stoppage halted their momentum.
Again, it was a second-half fightback that led to Wigan clinching the trophy, and the same half-time/full-time turnover against those same opponents occurred in the Wire’s last visit in 2016.
“We don’t consider ourselves that,” Ratchford continued, when asked about a ‘nearly men’ tag.
“In the previous two Grand Finals we put ourselves in really good positions to win the game. In 2013 we got a couple of injuries which contributed to the loss. I’m not saying we would have won without them, but they were a hindrance.
“In 2016 we put ourselves in a really good position at half-time, but we went away from what was working and came away on the wrong end of the scoreline.”
To add further motivational fuel to the fire, Warrington were also beaten in the Challenge Cup final this season by Catalans Dragons, similar to their 2016 exploits where their Wembley dreams were ended by Hull FC.
“The Challenge Cup this year was another game where we’d done a lot of things really well to get to the final but for 50-55 minutes of that game we did totally the opposite of what we should be doing and what is good for us,” Ratchford added.
“We’re on a learning curve week to week, hopefully we can take the lessons of the Challenge Cup and they might just give us the little boost we need going into the Grand Final.”
‘Change has freshened everyone up’
One of the key differences between the Warrington side that came so close to glory previously and the side bidding to change their fortunes is that the man at the helm has changed.
Tony Smith’s legacy at the Halliwell Jones Stadium was a significant one, creating a culture and a team which challenged for honours, but his final season was a tough one for all involved as the club limped through the 2017 campaign, ending up in the Qualifiers before securing their Super League status.
Smith made way last winter for former St George Illawarra boss Steve Price, and the result has been two finals and a top-four finish in Super League.
“We always had a squad, knew we had players capable of reaching these finals, the year before that we reached both finals again,” said back-rower Ben Westwood – another veteran of past Grand Final defeats.
“Last year was one of those horrible years, we couldn’t get out of the rut, but now we’ve got fresh faces, coaches, structures. It freshens people up.
“We had a really tough pre-season and that set us in good stead. When we went back to pre-season training last November we believed we could reach both finals – and despite losing at Wembley, I think what we’ve done is a remarkable achievement.”
Ratchford added: “Warrington have always been known for attacking flair, like Saints under Ian Millward – you score 30, we’ll score 40 sort of thing.
“Steve’s flipped that on its head, and he’s got a big focus on defence, and although we can be better some of our defensive performances have been great.”
Don’t write off the Saints? What about the Wire?
While Wigan have the emotional motivation of seeing off their head coach Shaun Wane and departing stars such as Sam Tomkins, Ryan Sutton and John Bateman, they also have form on their side with nine straight wins.
Not that Warrington should be unduly concerned. Their semi-final win against St Helens came against the league leaders, a side almost expected to win through to Old Trafford having beaten their rivals on all three previous occasions this term.
“We were written off last week,” Ratchford said. “They were the best and most consistent team, but we knew that we had the belief and confidence to get the right result.
“We’ll come into the (Wigan) game as underdogs but we know what we’re capable of and what we’ve got to do.”
Westwood added: “They’re always great games with Wigan, great atmospheres and they’re very well coached.
“I have utmost respect for them, but it sets up a fantastic game for everybody. Both performances last weekend showed us how good this could be.”
Fourth time lucky?
Ratchford and a few of his Warrington team-mates such as skipper Chris Hill, Westwood, Mike Cooper and Ryan Atkins have tasted success in primrose and blue in the Challenge Cup final, most recently in 2012 – one of three occasions in which they have been fighting on all fronts for the double.
However, that elusive Grand Final ring has thus far evaded them. Will it be fourth time lucky?
“Three times now I’ve had to watch the other team walking up to pick up the trophy,” Ratchford continued.
“My only experience of winning in a big stadium like that is at Wembley in the Challenge Cup, you can’t begin to explain the feeling of winning and knowing you’re going to pick up the trophy.
“We know Wigan are unbelievable, it’s going to be a tough game, but it’s one we’re confident we can come on top in.”