Hardaker eyes fairytale finish for Lockers

Zak Hardaker wants the chance to persuade Sean O’Loughlin to end his stellar career with a Grand Final conversion, after failing to talk him into it on his Wigan finale on Friday.

If he plays, O’Loughlin will become the oldest finalist to play in a Grand Final, given that he turns 38 on Tuesday (24th Nov).

Until now, Jamie Peacock is the oldest, turning out for Leeds against Wigan in 2015 at the age of 37 years, 300 days.

The oldest player to score in a Grand Final is Kevin Sinfield, who kicked three goals in victory for Leeds against Wigan in 2015 at the age of 35 years, 28 days, which makes Hardaker’s desire perhaps even more urgent.

Goalkicker Hardaker tried to hand the goalkicking responsibility over to the veteran Warriors skipper when Bevan French touched down in the closing stages of the semi-final win over Hull FC.

O’Loughlin turned down the offer before leaving the field to a guard of honour from both sides.

But Hardaker hasn’t given up hope of a second chance if Wigan can overcome the considerable challenge of rivals St Helens this Friday.

Hardaker said: “I tried to get Lockers to take the two in that last minute but he wasn’t bothered for it.

“He turned it down; he might have been too embarrassed had he missed.

“He bottled it – I asked him about four times, I was like, ‘Come over, come over.’

“He was like, ‘Nah, I’m not bothered.’

“Fingers crossed we’re in a situation where we’ve won it and I can give him a kick in his last ever game.”

Hardaker himself has been through more extreme Grand Final emotions than any other player.

The 29-year-old has been a winner three times at Old Trafford with Leeds Rhinos, including scoring the final try in their 2011 triumph against St Helens.

But in 2017 his world fell apart around him in the week of the Super League decider, when he tested positive for cocaine while at Castleford.

Stood down by his club and later suspended for 14 months, he has never been able to bring himself to watch the Tigers, who romped to the League Leaders’ Shield that year before losing 24-6 to Leeds to Old Trafford.

Now he is set to return to the Grand Final stage on Friday, albeit in Hull rather than Manchester as part of a reshuffled campaign.

And he will draw on all of his previous experiences, both good and bad.

Hardaker said: “I didn’t actually watch in 2017.

“I’ve been in three Grand Finals and won three, but with the Castleford one, I didn’t bother turning it on and I’ve still not seen it to this day.

“I didn’t even have the TV on, I was in a bit of a bad place – I didn’t have Rugby League in my mind whatsoever.

“But now, just being involved in one is fantastic.

“Normally you get a good build-up, but it’s different this year with FaceTimes and Zooms, so it’s going to be a different feel.

“But once we’re on that pitch we’ll do what we’ve been doing for the last four or five weeks.”

Wigan’s run of five straight wins since their Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Leeds has seen them clinch the League Leaders’ Shield and book a Grand Final slot with Thursday’s impressive victory over Hull FC.

They face a Saints team that was even more emphatic in seeing off Catalans on Friday, although the Warriors beat St Helens 18-6 a month ago in one of the matches of the season.

Hardaker added: “We feel like we’re a really well-oiled machine that’s just ticking over.

“If something doesn’t go our way, we’re not panicking.

“That Leeds game really fuelled us and the intensity of training lifted.

“That’s been shown in games and we’re confident if we stick to our structures.

“Everyone’s really turned a corner and the Saints game was big for us.

“I’m really convinced we can go that step further and win it.

“We’ve got the League Leaders’ Shield and we’ve got a legend of the club who’s retiring at the end of the year.

“We’ve spoken about not wanting to let ourselves down for Lockers and it’s really important to send him out on a high.

“We ticked the box of sending him out at the DW Stadium with a win, and now we’ll revisit that.

“We want to send him out with a Grand Final winners’ ring because he deserves it.”

(all played at Old Trafford)
1998 Wigan Warriors (1st) 10, Leeds Rhinos (2nd) 4 (Attendance: 43,553)
1999 St Helens (2nd) 8, Bradford Bulls (1st) 6 (Attendance: 50,717)
2000 St Helens (2nd) 29, Wigan Warriors (1st) 16 (Attendance: 58,132)
2001 Bradford Bulls (1st) 37, Wigan Warriors (2nd) 6 (Attendance: 60,164)
2002 St Helens (1st) 19, Bradford Bulls (2nd) 18 (Attendance: 61,138)
2003 Bradford Bulls (1st) 25, Wigan Warriors (3rd) 12 (Attendance: 65,537)
2004 Leeds Rhinos (1st) 16, Bradford Bulls (2nd) 8 (Attendance: 65,537)
2005 Bradford Bulls (3rd) 15, Leeds Rhinos (2nd) 6 (Attendance: 65,537)
2006 St Helens (1st) 26, Hull FC (2nd) 4 (Attendance: 72,582)
2007 Leeds Rhinos (2nd) 33, St Helens (1st) 6 (Attendance: 71,352)
2008 Leeds Rhinos (2nd) 24, St Helens (1st) 16 (Attendance: 68,810)
2009 Leeds Rhinos (1st) 18, St Helens (2nd) 10 (Attendance: 63,259)
2010 Wigan Warriors (1st) 22, St Helens (2nd) 10 (Attendance: 71,526)
2011 Leeds Rhinos (5th) 32, St Helens (3rd) 16 (Attendance: 69,107)
2012 Leeds Rhinos (5th) 26, Warrington Wolves (2nd) 18 (Attendance: 70,676)
2013 Wigan Warriors (4th) 30, Warrington Wolves (2nd) 16 (Attendance: 66,281)
2014 St Helens (1st) 14, Wigan Warriors (2nd) 6 (Attendance: 70,102)
2015 Leeds Rhinos (1st) 22, Wigan Warriors (2nd) 20 (Attendance: 73,512)
2016 Wigan Warriors (2nd) 12, Warrington Wolves (1st) 6 (Attendance: 70,202)
2017 Leeds Rhinos (2nd) 24, Castleford Tigers (1st) 6 (Attendance: 72,827)
2018 Wigan Warriors (2nd) 12, Warrington Wolves (4th) 4 (Attendance: 64,892)
2019 St Helens (1st) 23, Salford Red Devils (3rd) 6 (Attendance: 64,102)

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