By STEVE MASCORD
SEAN O’Loughlin would probably like to say he remembers Wigan travelling to the old ANZ Stadium in 1994 and shocking Brisbane 20-14. For a start, his brother-in-law no doubt expects him to remember it.
“He would have played in that, wouldn’t he? He would have just come on the scene at the time,” says Wigan’s captain, Sean O’Loughlin, sitting by a pool near Orlando, Florida.
O’Loughlin’s brother-in-law is former Golden Boot winner Andy Farrell. It’s a family connection that links the February 22 Wigan-Sydney Roosters showpiece at Allianz Stadium with the last time the World Club Challenge was played in Australia, two whole decades ago.
But curly-headed O’Loughlin was only 11 at the time.
“I can’t really remember the game at the time … I’ve seen footage,” he concedes. “Those kind of rivalries with some of the Aussie clubs … especially Brisbane, they were a massive club at the time … they’re the kind of things the fans want to see.
“Like in ’87 when Manly came over to Wigan. That’s written into the history of the club, the big games against the Aussie teams. For us to get a chance to play in one of them now …”
O’Loughlin is a player most rugby league fans would recognise; tall, athletic, curly-haired, hard working. But very little about his personality is known. As it transpires from A-List’s conversation with him here at the National Training Center during Wigan’s pre-season US camp, that is not in any way because ‘Lockers’ is secretive.
He just seems disarmingly … normal (italicise ‘normal’).
“This will be our third time coming to Florida with Waney,” he explains when asked about the benefits of the camp.
“…with new lads coming in (there’s a chance) to get to know them better. We’re in villas, there’s eight lads a villa, and we’re spending 24 hours a day with them.”
The ‘new lads’ are led by NRL stars Matt Bowen and Eddie Pettybourne. Around me, the players are at different points in their daily routines. The squad is divided into forwards and backs, they do weights, swim and then finish up down on a field where Wane, assistants Iestyn Harris and Paul Deacon are idly kicking a Steeden around in relatively warm sunshine.
O’Loughlin, now 31 (maths, eh?) assures me he won’t be left behind, because “I’m one of the bus drivers”.
This is quite a different Wigan team – without some real stars – to that which clinched the Cup-League double in 20133 and there must be a question mark about how they’ll perform in Super League, nevermind against the might of the Roosters. Then again, the ’94 side was given no hope in front of 54,220 Queenslanders, either.
“(Lee) Mossop, Sam (Tomkins) and Pat Richards – they’ve left key positions in the team and they’re big characters as well,” O’Loughlin admits.
“It feels like a new group, a lot of new lads coming in, a lot of young lads stepping up. They have left holes but it’s good for the lads coming through now to kind of make their mark.”
Bowen’s is not what you’d call a “big personality” – certainly not in the presence of strangers.”I think he’s still jetlagged!” O’Loughlin says, in reference to “Mango”s circuitous route to Florida.
“This is the first time I’ve met Mango and Eddie. They’ve just come straight to Florida … it must be hard for them too, there’s a few Aussie lads in the team but not too many of them. It’s just trying to make them feel welcome and getting them up to speed on the field as well.”
OK, time to hit some meaty issues. Why hasn’t captain Wigan joined his buddies in the NRL?
“I’ve been tempted. The last few times I’ve come off contract at Wigan, there has been an opportunity to go … one year ago, the beginning of last year. It was something I sat down with the wife and kids … well, I didn’t discuss it too much with the kids …. and had a good chat about. It cropped up but having young kids and family ties, those kind of things kept me (in England).
“It was St George. My agent had a chat with them and I had a chat but when push came to shove, with Waney coming in here … it was our second year with Waney and I wanted to stay and be part of that. Luckily enough we had the chance to play in two finals that year and won both finals so I’d probably be banging my head against the wall if I missed that.”
At his current age, O’Loughlin believes the opportunity has passed him by. But if it’s not … he’s open to offers. “You never know. If there is ever an opportunity to go over there, it’s always something I could consider – just because the opportunities don’t come around too often. But I’m very, very happy at Wigan. I’m very happy with the time I’ve had here so I think I’d have to have another sit-down with the wife if that were to ever happen.”
What about the state of the game in England, with clubs facing consistent financial problems and the player drain to the NRL gathering pace?
“When you see clubs struggling like Bradford have done – and they’re a big club – it is a little bit of a worry but I think we’ve got a good enough game to look after itself,” he answers, optimistically.
“I think it’s probably the people on the other side of the fence, the RFL and that, looking after their finances a little bit better and looking after clubs a little bit better than they have been doing. With the salary cap going the way it is, it’s probably going to be harder to pull Australian players over. It gives a lot of young kids a stronger opportunity now.”
OK, another curly one: misbehaviour in the England camp during the World Cup with Gareth Hock and Zak Hardaker kicked out by coach Steve McNamara and James Graham omitted from the tournament opener.
“Most of the stuff happened early doors in the camp so it gave everyone the chance to get on, crack on with what we had to do,” says O’Loughlin. “It weren’t ideal, going in to a World Cup. I think Steve Mac handled it well, he dealt with it the best he thought and all the lads got behind him.
“He did put his head on the block with a few things. The most disappointing thing was to lose that game (against New Zealand), more than anything. The lads had all bonded together with a few things we were up against. We need to get past that last semi-final to kind of prove that our game is going forward a little bit.”
Saturday week provides the British game with another such opportunity. You might think the conditions will be outside Wigan’s comfort zone – but they look pretty comfortable here in Florida. And besides, “pretty much every other year, I went to Australia as a kid. We went as a schoolboy at 16, academy at 18, toured a couple of times with England and Great Britain….”
Besides, you know the WCC is a big game simply because Sean O’Loughlin is playing in it. Last year, he won at Wembley, did not pay again until the grand final, and then sat out the World Cup until the sold-out match against Ireland.
“I got a good bit of abuse about that,” he laughs. “The injury I got before the Challenge Cup final, it was just a slight calf strain.
“So I’d not played in three or four weeks. I went into the final and slightly tore my achilles. Then I thought that was season over. I was sort of hoping to try and get back and be in contention for England but I didn’t think I’d be back for the grand final. I got the boot off, I think it were Monday or Tuesday, and the grand final was on the Saturday.
“The physios were happy for me to try it, I had two sessions before the grand final, it felt good, so I played in that. Then I got back into the England squad. I think I only played about 18 games last year and two of them were finals!”
The fact the start of Super League was brought forward to give Wigan the best possible preparation for the Roosters is compelling evidence that everyone sees the Allianz Stadium encounter as being on par with anything Wembley or Old Trafford can offer. It’s hard to see the NRL doing likewise to help an Aussie side travelling to England.
“I think a lot of the clubs, and the league over here, want us to do well at it,” Sean agrees. “If you can go over to Australia and win that, it shows that our competition is strong and we’ve got a lot of good quality players. It’s not just big for Wigan, its big for our sport.
“Our boys will be pumped to be part of that. You’re wearing your Wigan clothes but you’re wearing your English and Super League flag as well.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK