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So here we are. Play Off Time is
a upon us and with a much better format that rewards each position in the league
table with an advantage in some way.
The system had to change. Last
year Warrington finished fourth and just had to win one game, away at Saints, to
get to Old Trafford. Easy really for being four places off top. This year they
are fourth again and they’ll have to beat 5th, 3rd, 2nd
and 1st to become Champions. That’s how hard it should be from 4th
and if they somehow achieved that, they’ll have definitely earned the tag.
Wigan’s turnaround in form from
the shambles of the first half of the season has been remarkable. Make no bones
about it, the first four months of the season was a debacle both on and off the
Luck plays its part. Getting
Saints away first up following quickly by a World Club Challenge was not a great
card for a new coach trying to set his stall out. Having to peak for a big game
early generally brings a comedown off the back of it and losing narrowly to
Hull, London & Huddersfield put the pressure right on.
We looked to be reaching the
swim tide when we won away at Salford, beat Catalan 42-0 at home and then led
20-0 away at Castleford after 22 minutes.
But the bad luck struck again.
Jarrod Sammut limped off at Wheldon Road and the match collapsed off the back of
that. That same night Dom Manfredi went down again whilst Joe Greenwood’s
concussion came to the fore. Elsewhere, Sam Powell was missing. Zak Hardaker
missed a couple of games. Tom Davies foot went awry. Dan Sarginson got injured.
Likewise Sean O’Loughlin. Gabe Hamlin was sent home. Not forgetting the Shaun
Edwards off field shambles.
Did Adrian Lam run over a black
cat and not realise it? All this around Easter at a time when you need every
available body you can get.
Out of the Easter ashes though
came a cavalry. Appearances for Oliver Partington, Morgan Smithies and Liam
Byrne. Lam had no other choice.
It was ugly. We were being
bullied time and again down the middle of the field with no control at the ruck.
An 18-6 lead at Salford was reduced to a 22-18 deficit in five game minutes. A
24-4 lead at Cas was extinguished to 26-24 in 13 game minutes. Wakefield went
from 0-4 down to 22-4 up in six game minutes. A 14-0 lead on the second trip to
Salford was wiped out before a re-established 20-12 lead became a 26-20
The importance now though of the
last ten minutes of the Easter Monday game at Salford, followed by the
subsequent two games, cannot be underestimated. Tries from Joe Greenwood & Zak
Hardaker saw us nick a 30-26 win. A week later in terrible weather we hung on 27
minutes to a 6-4 lead against Cas and then we saw off London 18-8 on a dreary
Thursday Night. Ugly scenes. Nothing really to appease supporters worrying about
relegation but six huge points achieved.
A cup draw away at a then white
hot Warrington was again rotten luck, as was that Tommy Leuluai no try in that
game. The manner of defeats in the Nou Camp to Catalan and then at Magic to
Warrington returned Wigan to the back foot.
At this point we are ninth and
our next three games are away to Hull KR (11th), Leeds (10th)
& Huddersfield (8th). No one is thinking about top five, this is all
Let’s not forget we beat Hull KR
by one point and were beating Leeds by just three when the hooter sounded. How
close? Had we lost both those games we would have been joint bottom with London
and a defeat at Huddersfield too would have left us solely at the foot of the
I’ll never forget that afternoon
at Hull KR. Make no bones about it. The knifes were out for Lam. Truthfully, he
was looking out of his depth and whilst I appreciated he had rotten luck earlier
in the season, the line was close to being drawn. Certainly in the eyes of
With twenty minutes to go Wigan
trailed 18-14 and our producer on the radio was updating us on our other Wish FM
commentary down in London which remarkably was seeing Saints losing.
Then at 4:15pm came a 40/20 from
Sam Powell. “Great Play” said Local Journalist Phil Wilkinson on twitter. Whilst
I don’t think we scored straight away from it, what it did do was get Wigan down
field from what had been a constant territory struggle for the first twenty of
the second half, in which against a good 14-6 position had seen us fall 18-14
Liam Marshall claimed a try for
18-18 and with a minute to go Powell kicked a huge drop goal to win it before
adding a crucial one again a week later towards the 23-14 win at Leeds. Small
margins but given the run Wigan have been on since, unbelievably massive moments
in the context of the whole season.
Matty Peet returning to the
coaching staff has also been big. Given the task of sorting the defence after
the Nou Camp game, the impact was pretty instant. Liam Farrell returned to
fitness. Tommy Leuluai stopped having spells of being desperate for energy every
game. Sam Powell hits form. The shy right side that was barely contributing to
the score sheet was now firing. George Williams has been racking up many points
towards his man of steel nomination. Lam must have found a nicer cat.
Perhaps the biggest stroke of
luck though was Taulima Tautai being exiled. A great character he may have been
but the fact he only managed 7 starts in his 132 appearances must have said
something about his contribution. Oliver Partington has played every single game
since Tautai’s last appearance, which ironically was that match at Hull KR, and
in turn Liam Byrne has got game time that he probably would not have got had
Tautai still been around.
Control in defence though has
been the biggest key to the turnaround. The middle of the field is stiffened up
and no more highlighted by the fact that Wigan have kept Wakefield, Hull,
Warrington, Catalan and Castleford try-less in first halves since our last
defeat in July whilst Wakefield took 30 minutes to cross against us. Only Hull
KR managed a try against us within the first half hour of game during the last
Given all that though, it’s not
like Wigan have dominated from the off. They have been tested early on quite
often, a lot from their own making. They’ve almost been taunting the opposition
to test them with an early try or two. Wigan though seem to thrive off defence
and just grind the opponents down when it suits them.
That’ll be Salford task on
Friday I feel. If they are to win, I think they’ll need to find early scores.
To be honest though I’m quite
relaxed about what it is to come. The reality of the back end of this season is
that this SHOULD be Saints time to win the Gran/.
Saints squad is set up to nail
trophies. Lomax, Makinson, Percival, Grace, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, LMS, Amor.
They’ve been around together a good few years now. The iron is hot! This SHOULD
be their time.
This really SHOULDN’T be Wigan’s
time. I firmly believe we are slap bang in the middle of transition. Look at our
stalwarts of the last few years and, whilst some have left and come back, I can
list Sam Tomkins, Anthony Gelling, Dan Sarginson, George Williams, Thomas
Leuluai, Micky McIlorum, Joel Tomkins, John Bateman, Sean O’Loughlin, Taulima
Tautai. Tony Clubb and Ben Flower won’t be too far away either. 12 players there
who Wigan are in the process of turning over into a new era.
Add in a change of coach and
that’s a lot of upheaval in the last year or two, unlike over the hill who have
been more looking to add final bits to the jigsaw rather than winding back to go
Alas, some of those twelve still
here, the necessary process is still not complete. That’s why this really
SHOULDN’T be Wigan’s time but yet we’ve a damn good chance.
If it doesn’t end up our way,
it’s not a time to get worried or worked up. After all I expect Wigan will be
home to both 2019 man of steel and young player of the year next campaign.
If it does end up in Wigan
success at Old Trafford again it’ll be a beautiful cherry on top of a big cake
and all the hard over the years in the youth development will have been the
fulcrum to it all.
I actually think though that
this play off series is all about Saints. Like I said this should be their time
and they should have won a major final by now. That early try decision was
rotten luck at Wembley but ultimately, they produced a level of errors that was
totally inadequate for the big occasion.
I actually think the bigger tone
was set by them in the Semi Final. Halifax were praised to the hilt for their
efforts that day, but really Saints should have brutally murdered them, like
Wigan did to London 70-0 in 2013. Instead they coughed and spluttered to
That’s why I feel that if Wigan
get in the Qualifier against Saints next week that it might not necessarily be
most important that we win, because we get a second chance, but that we keep
Saints in a cough and splutter mode like they had against Halifax. The quality
of this Saints side is not in doubt, it’s the bottle in big games that is
questionable and whether they will learn from what happened in the cup.
What can’t be questioned about
Wigan is their experience and know on in how to get to Old Trafford, having done
so in five of the last six years. That could be our biggest asset. It’s worth
noting though that every time we’ve reached Old Trafford in recent times, we’ve
done from the DW Stadium.
It’ll be interesting how it all
pans out but it’s Salford first. Then have no experience of the play offs but
that will probably make them more dangerous. They have been marvellous in
attack, but I’ll be most interested in how they deal with situations in which
patience is required.
I draw similarities in Play Off
Rugby from the Bobby George comment about darts “trebles for show, doubles for
dough” – emphasising that 180s are great but it’s double finishes that win legs
and sets and ultimately trophies. I think more often than not in knock out rugby
that Attack is for show but its defence that will prove the ultimate key.
Salford this season have had
games conceding totals in games of 46, 26, 24, 30, 33, 30, 32, 32, 35, 36, 28,
22 – three of those totals in losses to Wigan. The attack has been a consistent
rhythm but the defence has been erratic compared to Wigan who have been keeping
most teams to less than 20 for a while and have experience of winning Grand
Finals by keeping teams to one try and nilling Cas in a play offs last year
I suppose in essence it’ll boil
down to whether Salford can put points on Wigan’s defence, knock them off their
usual game and dictate the rhythm. If they allow Wigan to dictate, there will
only be one winner.
Let’s see what happens.