Sean O’Loughlin will go head to head with the man he is tipped to succeed as England captain when Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos do battle in the penultimate round of First Utility Super League tomorrow night.
The Wigan loose forward is seen as the most logical choice to lead England on their Four Nations tour of Australia and New Zealand next month following the decision of Leeds skipper Kevin Sinfield to step down from the role.
O’Loughlin is eager to make the trip Down Under but for the moment is fully focused on helping his club produce a big finish to the season.
“It’s nice to get your name mentioned but it’s not something I’m going to worry myself about too much,” O’Loughlin said.
“I’ve missed out on quite a few internationals over the years so just being involved in playing is the main thing.
“I’m definitely keen to go on the tour. I was lucky enough to go on a few with Great Britain in my early days and I have some great memories.
“To captain your country is the pinnacle of anyone’s career but that is a long way off for me at the minute. The next few weeks will determine if I get picked to go on tour.”
O’Loughlin’s priority is help Wigan get their title defence back on track after winning just one of their last four matches. They are just a point ahead of Tetley’s Challenge Cup winners Leeds, who are currently sitting in sixth place but could still finish second in the most competitive Super League competition to date.
“If we want to be successful this year, we know we’ve got to step it up in these last two games,” said O’Loughlin, whose side face another top-six team in Warrington Wolves in their final league game next Thursday.
“More than where we finish, we want a bit of consistency heading into the play-offs.
“We’re out of contention for the shield and we’ve not been involved in the Challenge Cup final so this is our last chance to win something.”
Leeds, too, have faltered in the league with three straight defeats, but they have a habit of peaking at the business end of the season as five Grand Final triumphs in the last eight years demonstrate.
“While we lost last week and the last couple of league games before Wembley didn’t go our way, I just know we thrive off the intensity and the nature of the play-offs,” said coach Brian McDermott.
“Our players step up. I can’t wait for them to start. Bring it on.
“It will be a big game at Wigan. They are a very competitive team. They’ve challenged for honours and won honours over the last two to three years, as have Leeds, and there’ll be two teams desperate to climb the ladder to ensure we have a better route in the play-offs.”
Wigan coach Shaun Wane is also expecting his players to rise to the occasion after being held to a draw by Hull KR and then losing at Widnes Vikings last Friday.
“We’ve been dishing up some performances that are not acceptable but we seem to up our game when we’re in these tough positions,” Wane said.
“If we can finish fourth and win a Grand Final, I’d be happy with that. We’ve a huge challenge in these last two games because they’re both good teams.
“I believe the Wigan-Leeds fixture now is just like Wigan-St Helens. It’s always a feisty game; it means a lot to both teams.
“I have a lot of respect for Leeds – I played for them for three years – so I really enjoy this fixture and this one is a bit more special.
“They are a very experienced team who know what to do to win big games. They have some outstanding talent led by one of the best front-rowers in the world, Jamie Peacock, who is playing out of his skin.
“They won at Wembley and they’re the team to catch at the minute. It’s a good challenge for my young players.”