Brad O’Neill: Facing ex-Wigan star Sam Tomkins in Grand Final will be ‘surreal’

Eight-year-old Brad O’Neill perched behind the posts at Old Trafford among over 70,000 others and roared on his hero Sam Tomkins as Wigan beat St Helens to win the 2010 Super League Grand Final.

Thirteen years later, having swapped his junior replica shirt for a dream place in the Warriors first team, O’Neill is preparing to head back to the same stadium tasked with denying Tomkins a fairy-tale ending to his playing career.

Former Wigan great Tomkins will take to the field for the last time on Saturday as he looks to inspire a first French Grand Final win – but lifelong Wigan fan O’Neill has long since shed any loyalty to the Catalans Dragons man.

Huddersfield Giants v Wigan Warriors – Betfred Challenge Cup – Final – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Brad O’Neill has wrestled his way into the Wigan first team (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I remember my first Grand Final in 2010, sitting behind the posts with my dad, a sell-out, and how it was bouncing in the Wigan end after we won.

“Sam and Sean O’Loughlin were the two players I most admired and I always hoped that one day I’d be part of the big games like them. Sam was always scoring tries and at the centre of things. It will be a bit surreal facing him in the Grand Final now.”

Wigan Warriors v Warrington Wolves – Betfred Super League – Grand Final – Old Trafford
Brad O’Neill will come face to face with his former Wigan hero Sam Tomkins (Martin Rickett/PA)

He starred in last season’s Challenge Cup final win over Huddersfield at Wembley and seized another opportunity earlier this season following an injury to Powell, going on to make the hooker position his own.

In June, he was rewarded with a new four-year contract, an indication of the potential seen in him by Wigan head coach Matt Peet, especially given the club’s capture of fellow number nine Kruise Leeming for the 2024 campaign.

“Matty has always been a part of my journey at Wigan and he’s always steered me down the right path,” added O’Neill. “Being able to pick the brains of someone like Sean, who has so much knowledge and played in so many Grand Finals, also helps.

“Culture is always a big thing at Wigan and it goes right down to the bottom, to academy and scholarship. You learn it straight away and it becomes natural to carry it through to the first team. It’s a massive part of the success of the club.”

Hull FC v Wigan Warriors – Betfred Super League – KCOM Stadium
Sean O’Loughlin has been another huge influence on Brad O’Neill’s career (Martin Rickett/PA)

But there will be no room for sentiment for O’Neill, who is looking to take the opportunity to inspire a new generation of young Wigan fans who will be sitting behind the posts with his name emblazoned on their backs.

“I meet young fans all the time and it always reminds me that I was there at one time, so it’s all about doing everything you can to give something back,” added O’Neill. “My own story is proof that their own dreams are reachable.”

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