So near but yet so very far away
from being Champions is how I would sum up Wigan in 2015.
Reality saw Wigan just
milliseconds away from being league leaders and then narrowly losing the Grand
Final at Old Trafford but I think we ultimately fell way short of those
On one hand losing both those
honours to Leeds was not too bad. Yes we may have contested the previous two
Grand Finals before this year but it was still a young squad we had, particularly
when compared to the vast experience of the Leeds outfit.
On that other hand though Iíd
point to seven performances away from home where our standards were simply not
good enough for a side hoping to be champions.
Those seven games being the two
trips to Leeds, the two to St Helens and the matches at Castleford, Catalan and
the first visit to Warrington. The aggregate score in those games was 216-98. Way
off and those seven performance are why we fell short at Old Trafford.
To win on the big stage you have
to be going into backyards like those and gaining at least a couple of good
results. What we did is fail consistently on those big stages. Regular
coach trips home with sour faces after defeat canít be good. It certainly demoralised
a lot of fans last season and itís hard to imagine it not being the same for
The fact we couldnít win away at
the big venues was, I think, the biggest reason we fell short in the end. Fair
enough you couldnít fault our form at the DW but the belief would have been ten
times greater had we produced that form away. I do note by the way that we did
get a great 28-0 win at Warrington in late August but Wire were demoralised
beyond belief by then and taking nothing away form Wigan that night, it probably
did say a lot more about who them than us.
I donít normally dwell when we
suffer big final defeats, because Iíve enjoyed my team having so many good
times, but the last fifteen minutes at Old Trafford has been irking me since
the season ended.
I havenít looked back at any tape
but my memory was that we never even got out of our own half in that final
period of the game, when we needed to score. Was that credit to Leeds just
swamping all over us or was their a total lack of urgency from Wigan?
Iím convinced Leeds in that
position would have gone direct, straight up the middle, with fast pace, to at
least try and milk a penalty. After all, a penalty goal was all Wigan needed to
level the game but you have no chance if you donít get into at least goal
kicking range. To not at least getting into that kind of field territory was a
massive failure in my eyes.
Those final fifteen minutes
really showed up Wiganís inexperience in my view. Three Grand Finals in a row
may look like plenty of experience but only Matty Smith, Sean OíLoughlin, Liam
Farrell and Dom Crosby played in all three finals. Ben Flower technically did
so as well but we all know he missed the majority of the 2014 final. So itís not
like itís been the same side coming back in hot form every year and failing.
That really would worry me but this is still a developing side I feel.
Next year though we surely should
expect the patience to bare fruit. I mean, finally, the squad is pretty settled
and that should be massive bonus. It canít have been easy to go into 2014
having lost Pat Richards, Harrison Hansen, Sam Tomkins and Lee Mossop. Then
going into 2015 needing to bed in a rookie half back like George Williams
whilst having a key prop like Ben Flower suspended for quite a while. I donít
think the unplanned for loss of reserve rugby helped Wigan through the last
couple of years either.
Yes Sam Tomkins is returning but
he is well versed in Wiganís culture and ethics. The only other incoming is
Willie Isa and itís not like he does have to settle in having moved from down
under. Everyone is here already and most are going to benefit from a full off
and pre season.
For those reasons then we should
expect a far better start to next season that we got in 2015. Sam will be an
obvious loss early in the year but we gain the benefit of the matches Oli
Gildart, Dom Manfredi and George Williamsí got last year. They go into 2016 as
bone-fide members of the squad rather than ones hoping to get into the team.
In fact the ones with most to
prove are Josh Charnley and Anthony Gelling. They got the biggest kick up the
back side you can get late last year and I think most Wigan fans are on board
in thinking they got what they deserved in being dropped.
Charnley looked miles away last
year. Itís amazing that a player who has claimed 140 tries in 141 matches for
Wigan can have a thousand question marks thrown at him but that is the reality.
I really do wonder if he just
burnt out because he just seemed to hit a brick wall. Dom Manfredi put him
under pressure and Josh didnít look like he had any energy to give any answers. His
career and pace of play has been 100 miles an hour from the start but he has
never really benefited from a good off season.
He played the most games of
anyone in the 2013 double winning year before being involved in a long World
Cup. Then in 2014 he suffered a bad injury at Dewsbury in the cup tie before
coming back and then being involved in a England Tour down under. This left him
rolling into 2015 with little break and I think, or wonder, if all that caught
up with him as the year wore on.
I think him being dropped by not
only Wigan, but also England, will be the best thing to happen to him. Heís now
had a long break and he enters 2016 with plenty to prove. Budgie leaving
basically gives Charnley his place back and I hope him and Sam will be in the
kind of form at the end of the year that saw them claim 77 tries between them
in 2013. That will be a big factor in our seasons prospects.
As for Gelling, well those who
listen to me on the radio will know I made no secret of my anger at his
performances in September before he got dropped.
Offloading a metre from his own
line whilst defending a 26-24 lead with less than ten minutes to go against
Hull saw me banging the desk in front of me but when he did the same thing,
this time costing a try, at Saints a week later, I donít know how I didnít
swear on air.
Gelling is a fan favourite to
some but, for me, itís for the wrong reasons. Blocking a penalty goal attempt
and producing an amusing video in response to Warringtonís Chris Sandow fail
was genius amusement but I want to see him produce the goods on the field.
It was a shame when he tore his
hamstring at Wakefield in April because his form was fantastic but you always
ask the question with him about whether he can be trusted. After that fail at
Saints he was immediately substituted and then dropped for a 19 year old in
at the time, had played only four first team matches. That spoke massive volumes considering
it was heading into the climax of the season.
Gelling isnít a potential
anymore, next year will be fifth season with us, and he really needs to start
producing the goods consitently every week because the next Oli Gildart will come out the
Under 19s pretty quickly if he doesnít. Iím a massive fan of Jack Higginson for
example and I hope to see him get some game time next year.
I think Lee Mossop is another who
we should expect improvement from next year. He admitted himself that his form
had been disappointing but fans probably donít appreciate that the hassle of
emigrating down under in the 2013/14 off season before then moving back in the
2014/15 off season canít have been easy for him. A good rest and a full
pre season should do him the world of good.
All in all though, I think Wigan
have a massive opportunity next year. Whilst I don't seem much altering at the
top, Leeds should find the going far tougher without
Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock and I see a chance for Wigan or Saints (because they too have a young squad despite winning 2014 title) to take
over as the top team the rest will have to chase.
Wigan don't need to dwell on
the Grand Final failure too much but they do need to learn the lessons from the
entire season like I highlighted earlier in this piece.
The reality of Old Trafford was
that Wigan had a good twenty minute blitz after half time, the rest of the game
was all Leeds. That was symptomatic of a lot of matches last year, at home as
well. We had
good spells in games but ultimately not often good games in their entirety. The trips to Saints, Warrington,
Leeds, Catalan and Castleford are going to be massive indicators of whether we
can find an inner steel that will give us the belief to be a strong outfit on a
more consistent basis.
Itís a damn shame that none of
those matches fall early, in fact four of those away days fall after Round 12,
but the fixture list is what it is. I hope that when champions Leeds visit on
March 11th that we are in the top four with a good performance
against Brisbane under our belt. I think where we sit after that night will be
a good indicator for next season.
Iím really intrigued to see how
we get on. I think we will get better this year because of age and experience
more than anything. We donít want to be remembered for losing Grand Finals but
perhaps we should recall how patient Leeds had to be before winning the first
of their many Grand Finals in 2004?
When I talk about patience, I
offer this stat. Kevin Sinfield retired this year as a god in Leeds having played
through a period which saw them win seven Grand Finals, two Challenge Cups and
three World Club Challenges. But no one will remember when
they look back that Sinfield made 182 appearances before lifting his first
silverware at Old Trafford in 2004.
Only Sean OíLoughlin, Micky McIlorum and Joel Tomkins have
played more than 182 times for Wigan. Yet we still have been knocking on
the door. I think weíve every right to expect a trophy in 2016, but I think
this squad also has the right to have been afforded patience. That patience
shouldn't be afforded next year though. Hopefully itís going to all come
together. We shall see.