The loose ends of wire are still hanging out of Dom Manfredi’s left eyelid. It’s not the daintiest of jobs, but then when you’re trying to sew up a player’s eye in the middle of a Grand Final, it’s not like you get extra points for style. There are ten stitches in total, and he’ll feel them later, but right now all he can feel is pure, undiluted bliss.
It was a try-saving tackle on Warrington’s Tom Lineham right on his own line, and as Manfredi tried to get up afterwards he felt something impairing his vision. “The blood was going straight into my eyeball, so I couldn’t really see anything,” he recalls with the casual indifference of a man describing a mildly irritating itch.
Thanks to the hasty work of Wigan club doctor Chris Brookes, Manfredi was back on the field in time to score his second try of the game, sealing a 12-4 victory in a gritty, grubby, absorbing Grand Final. Yes, Wigan are champions again, and if it was hard not to feel for Warrington - thwarted for a fourth time at the final hurdle - then it was equally hard not to be moved by Wigan’s elation, and Manfredi’s in particular, a man who has spent much of the last two years limping through his own waking nightmare.
It was August 2016 when Manfredi injured his cruciate ligament against Castleford, and as weeks became months became years, he began to give up hope of ever returning to the game he loved. He started taking HGV lessons in anticipation of the new career he would have to find. A year ago, he trotted out in a reserve game, only to hobble off with a recurrence of the same injury.
“I had some dark times during those two years,” he says now. “Unbelievably dark. I felt like giving up a lot of times.”
He was 22 then, a dashing young winger with the world at his feet and an international future ahead of him. Now he’s 25, and carrying a lifetime’s worth of painful memories. As recently as a month ago, his career was still in the balance. If the ligament had ruptured again, that would probably have been it. Now he’s a two-try Grand Final winner. “If you’d told me that six months ago, I’d have told you to shut up,” he beamed. “No chance.”
But then, they’ve all got a story to tell. Six weeks ago, centre Dan Sarginson was celebrating a win over local rivals St Helens when he received the news that his younger brother Adam had died suddenly in Norway. He was only 23. Two years ago, when Sarginson was part of Wigan’s winning Grand Final side, Adam had been there, at Old Trafford, watching from the stands. On the eve of this game, the memories came flooding back.
“I had to call a couple of the coaches to calm me down,” he said. “I was in a bit of a state. But I just wanted to go out there and win for him. There’ll be more tears later.”
They’re a different breed, the men and women who play this sport. They may not be household names, at least not outside their own home town. They may not earn superstar salaries. You’re not likely to spot them in glossy gossip magazines. But they’ve all moved mountains to be where they are today: whether it’s overcoming personal turmoil, physical despair, or simply the uphill economics of a sport that doesn’t attract blue-chip sponsors, whose fans don’t tend to have much call for wealth fund managers or luxury watches.
They do it for moments like this: the simple joy of playing 80 minutes of rugby with their mates, the simple high of putting it all on the line.
They’re not an ostentatious bunch, as a rule, and they’re generally reticent about blowing their own horn. They pass the credit as instinctively as they pass the ball. “Terrible, awful shit,” is how Wigan coach Shaun Wane described the elaborate fanfare of the last week, as he prepared to take charge of his last game for the club. “I didn’t realise how uncomfortable I would be with it. That’s it, me done, finished. I’m on the drink for a month.”
Talk to Wane’s players, however, and you get a more generous assessment. “I owe a lot to Waney,” says Manfredi. “I’d probably be digging holes on a building site if it wasn’t for him. So yeah, I’m gutted he’s leaving.”
“I don’t think he realises how much he’s going to miss this team,” Sarginson observes. “The cameras only usually catch the angry side of him. But there’s a lot more.”
For six years, this was Wane’s world. And now he’s out of it, perhaps for good. But the values he instilled will endure: values that define Wigan as a club, that may even define the sport as a whole. Humility. Togetherness. I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine. And don’t worry about the pain for the time being. Not long from now, we’ll kick back with a beer, and it’ll all have been worth it.
Some of us are born into riches, into fortune, into privilege. But for the majority, you don’t get anything in this life unless you’re prepared to hurt for it. And so, as the fans shuffled home through traffic jams and train strikes, as the Old Trafford groundstaff took to the pitch to repair the divots and damage, one little corner of the stadium shook and reverberated. The Wigan dressing room was alive with song and dance: nine months of coiled energy and lifetimes of devotion, all gushing out in a single ecstatic instant. “The best team in the land,” they shouted, and once more, they had been as good as their word.