Hull’s KCOM Stadium might not be the Theatre of Dreams, but for St Helens’ Matty Lees, after last year’s nightmare, it’ll do.
Lees missed Saints’ 2019 title win with a career-threatening injury – a perforated bowel that also robbed him of an appearance at Wembley.
Now Covid-19 has wrecked his chances of playing at a packed Old Trafford for another year.
But, after helping Kristian Woolf’s men to a thumping 48-2 semi-final win over Catalans Dragons, the 22-year-old will at least get his crack at Grand Final glory.
And having once feared he “probably wouldn’t ever play again”, that’s no mean feat.
“Getting told that (by the doctors) is pretty scary really,” Lees told League Express.
“To be in my first Grand Final 14 months later is pretty special.
“Everyone wants to play at a packed out Old Trafford, so it’s not ideal, but you’d rather be in the final than not, wherever it is.
“Last year was bittersweet for me, missing out on both finals. The Challenge Cup was the first kick in the teeth; we’d not got to Wembley for ten years, so it was pretty heartbreaking to miss it.
“Then to miss the Grand Final as well, especially after being knocked out in the semi-finals the previous two years, was so frustrating.”
Two months after emergency surgery to fix the horror injury suffered in a game against Leeds Rhinos, Super League’s Young Player of the Year in 2019 experienced a mixed bag of emotions as he watched his pals parade the Betfred Super League trophy around the Old Trafford pitch following their 23-6 win over Salford.
“I was buzzing for the lads that they’d won the Grand Final.
“But when you personally miss out you’re always disappointed. Yes, you’ve played a part through the year to get the team there, but not to actually play in the win on the field is pretty gutting.”
As the celebrations continued in the dressing rooms, however, Lees’ jubilant teammates weren’t too caught up in their delight not to notice his despair.
It was star stand-off Jonny Lomax who, having had his own share of bad luck with injuries earlier in his career, made a beeline for the youngster to issue a solemn promise, one he and his fellow Saints have now delivered on.
“Being in the sheds at Old Trafford, with everyone celebrating, I think Jonny realised that he’d been in a similar position to me before,” Lees remembers.
“He came over and said to me ‘we’re gonna get there again for you next year’.
“That was really good of him, to step aside from the celebrations and have a good chat with me. For him to do that, it gives you confidence and a bit of trust going into the next year.
“Especially coming from a player like Jonny, it meant a lot. I believed him and now we’ve managed to do it.
“I know a few of the lads were made up for me after the Catalans game, now hopefully it all goes well on Friday.”
Saints are also desperate to deliver for retiring legend James Graham, who aims to sign off an illustrious career with a second Grand Final winners’ ring some 14 years after earning his first, provided he clears the return-to-play protocols after suffering a concussion against Catalans.
Graham, 35, rejoined his boyhood club from NRL side St George Illawarra in mid-season and has had an impact on and off the pitch, not least on young prop Lees.
“Jammer’s been a massive influence for me, he’s brilliant,” said the Academy graduate, who’ll make his 66th first team appearance in Friday’s big decider and recently penned a new deal to the end of 2022.
“I never thought I’d get to experience playing or training with him and luckily I’ve managed to do that.
“It would be a perfect end to Jammer’s career if we could win the Grand Final.”
Victory would also be the perfect end to the strangest of Super League seasons.
“All the sacrifices we’ve had to make over the last six months will have all been worth it if we lift that trophy.”
PREVIOUS GRAND FINAL RESULTS
(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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