18th man column: ‘Grand Final will be between Wigan and Saints’

John Bateman in action against St Helens
John Bateman in action against St Helens

As the race to Old Trafford heats up, four of our 18th man columnists answer five key question...

How many of Wigan’s remaining four games will they win?

Should Sam Powell be in the frame for Man of Steel?

Should Sam Powell be in the frame for Man of Steel?

Bilko: We should be beating both Widnes and Catalan and I expect Hull will struggle to get back up for a big game against us so soon after their Wembley triumph. Warrington I think have the previous Wembley experience to deal with coming out of a cup final better but it’ll be interesting how much energy they will have also. If we don’t win at least three of the four I think that will be mightily disappointing but I actually think we’ll win the lot.

David Bailey: With just 4 rounds left and the top 4 (well 3 really) jostling for the league leaders shield and a home semi-final I decided to take a look at Wigan’s recent form in these fixtures (same team at the same stadium over the last 5 seasons).

Before looking at the form guide though, in my head I thought that Wigan would win 3 out of the 4 fixtures and the stats appear to back me up. The Warriors have shown good form against Widnes and Catalans at home winning 4/5 and 5/6 of the previous meetings and I would expect Wigan to win these two games comfortably. Warrington appear to be the bogey team with Wigan only winning 2 of the previous 6 at the Halliwell Jones. The stats against Hull did surprise me though with Wigan winning all 5 of the last 5 games at the KC Stadium. That being said though. Hull appear to be a different animal this season although they only managed to scrape past a below par Wigan side in the cup semi final and I feel Wigan will be targeting this game more than the others.

Darren Wrudd: I think that if we keep our game head on, as we did last time out, we could easily win the last four games. If we switch off, we will be lucky to win two out of four.

Joe Charnock: First up is Widnes on Thursday and on form this has to be a banker. Although our away games are tough there is no reason now we are near full strength we cannot beat both Wires and Hull. Wembley takes a lot out of teams and then we have Catalans at home to round off the Super League season. So for me it’s got to be four out of four. Wigan’s aim has got to be Grand Final success after not reaching Wembley.

Do you think Wigan will win the Grand Final, and why?

Bilko: I don’t think Wigan’s attacking level of performance so far this year would be good enough and we certainly can’t afford to be wasteful with territory like we’ve been so often this season. The positive of the poor attack though is that we’ve had to come out on top in a lot of tight battles this year and that could be a big mental help for the play-offs because it is in that regard that I felt Wigan failed last season at Old Trafford. It’s not too late for the attack to fire and it’s clear that if we do find some form that we have a great chance, because defence has been excellent. Also injuries during the year work out as a positive now as we have a pretty fresh squad. Overall, I feel a lot of faith has been shown in certain individuals and now is the time to rise and deliver. The prospect of a third trophy-less season would be unthinkable.

DB: I do think that Wigan will win the Grand final this season, and to be honest if they don’t questions will be asked about why we can’t get over the line in recent seasons falling short in the last two Grand Finals. I feel that the players will be desperate for success and they will want to send the likes of Sarginson and Charnley off with an Old Trafford victory, plus the younger players like Williams, Gildart, Sutton and even Bateman have that little bit more experience under their belt.

DW: Wigan historically are used to being in big games and the recent years have seen some losses which we should have learned from. We have however a huge point to prove to ourselves if we manage to get to Old Trafford as the last couple of years have been unkind for all sorts of reasons (remember Sinfield’s knock on which won them the treble?) But if we do get there, I honestly think that we have the beating of most sides in the competition if we decide that we want it the most, so yes, I think if we do get there, we will win.

JC: I think we can go all the way this year as the defeats of previous seasons will be a big advantage. Hopefully it will be Hull in the final as this would be a cracking game and we owe them big style. So I am going for a Wigan Grand Final win.

Team-wise is there any changes you’d like to see Shaun Wane make?

Bilko: I look at the pack that played Saints and, in noting Tony Clubb is due to return, I genuinely ask myself where does Sean O’Loughlin fit in that? I imagine the captain will play but I’m really struggling to see who for. Perhaps him being the alternate hooker may be the best bet because I like the back row of Bateman, Isa and Sutton and I think Clubb, Tautai and Big Frank off the bench is impact enough. It’s great to finally be a position where we have options of who to leave out in the pack but it also leaves some tough calls for coach Shaun Wane.

DB: I think the squad is quite well balanced at the moment. Obviously Wigan would be a stronger outfit with the likes of Manfredi and McIlorum in the side but that will have to wait until next season. I would like to see a more mobile bench though, I feel Wigan’s plan A of size and power has been found out by some of the top sides this season and without a plan B we just aren’t expansive enough particularly from range. We used to have great success when Joe Burgess was about pinging the ball to the left wing and him finding a yard to beat the first line of defence and setting up the likes of Farrell inside for a simple but brilliant score. Maybe that will return when Budgie flies back to the nest.

DW: I suppose I find it difficult to look for changes in our squad for next year because I have such fondness for the team that I would feel disloyal, but perhaps Sarginson will see some better fortune Down Under and as for any other changes, it would be to put double sided tape on Gelling and Tautai’s fingers to try and stop those ridiculous offloads. This squad has all that it takes to win trophies, we just need consistency. Much has been said about Matty Smith leaving at the end of the year, I hope not but if he does we would need to replace him with a quality player like a Gidley or a Sandow who can organise an attacking line.

JC: There needs to be no changes to the team in personnel as the local kids continue to churn off the production line. The only change I would like to see is young Jake Shorrocks given a run at seven. The lad has class written all over him and can kick goals. I think him and Williams would thrive on each others’ skills with ball in hand.

But they need to be given the freedom to show the natural talent both lads have. Waney should be given a long-term contract as he epitomises what Wigan Warriors is all about. Hopefully the introduction of Tommy Leuluai will result in someone to replace Deacon as backs coach. We seem this season at times to have lacked ideas in open play. I would like to see young Liam Marshall given a chance for the injured Manfredi as the kid has pace to burn. He is scoring tries for fun at Swinton where he is learning his trade.

Who is Wigan’s biggest threat to the Grand Final trophy?

Bilko: I honestly feel it’s between Wigan and Saints. You can’t write Hull off totally but I think they’ll struggle to find energy again after the emotion of winning at Wembley for the first time and who has the most energy is a big factor in the play offs. I thought Warrington were actually quite disappointing in the final and the way they seemingly flagged for fitness late on was an alarm bell ringer. The Top 4 being sorted does give a chance for them to reset though but I’d question them both wasting energy chasing League Leaders Shield.

DB: Although Hull have been everyone’s form team this season and it’s a sin to write the Saints off, I believe that Warrington will pose the biggest threat to Wigan winning the Grand Final. They may not have won the Grand Final before coming up short on a couple of occasions, but I think they have an impressive pack led by Chris Hill and Ashton Sims, plus the outstanding Ben Currie, have a great hooker in Daryl Clark, and the half back combination of Gidley and Sandow really complement each other, although their back line isn’t the strongest they still have a fair bit of firepower and like Hull were desperate to end their Wembley hoodoo I feel the Wolves are the same with regards to the Grand Final and the cup final defeat will spur them on further.

DW: Its no surprise though that our biggest threat must be Hull FC. The size of the team is the biggest hill to climb but game management would see us through as big men tire quicker. We would need to turn them around and keep the ball in play and they would not be able to keep up with us.

JC: Our biggest threat to the Grand Final could be any of Wires, Saints or Hull. Personally I think it has to be Hull, they are so strong all over the park. They have a top ball leader in Danny Houghton who is dangerous to any side. But Wigan can beat them on their day.

Who would be your Man of Steel?

Bilko: If John Bateman hadn’t had his two months off then I think he’d have been in with a shout because I’d argue without him this year we’d probably be 4th or 5th right now. With that in mind my pick would be Gareth Ellis.

He’s been a Jamie Peacock type for Hull this year in the sense that I think his presence on the field is dragging a lot of the rest up at Hull and you notice a significant drop in intensity when he is spelled on the sideline. They’ll miss him massively if he retires at the end of the season.

DB: I have two trains of thought on this. With my Cherry and White glasses on I’d have to go for John Bateman, despite him missing eight weeks due to “that” incident. I just feel he has grown in stature this season and his efforts have won us several games almost single-handedly.

He’s played in numerous positions in the back row and centres, his attack and defence have been outstanding and alongside Williams has been our best attacking threat when taking on the line. That being said I don’t think he will get the plaudits because of his misdemeanour so I’d have to go for Danny Houghton. His form this year has been a different class and having been in the shadows to the likes of Roby, McIlorum and Clark in recent times he’s been one of the main factors in Hull FC’s renaissance and his challenge cup match winning tackle just sums him up. Comfortable at taking the line on or getting the ball out swiftly for the likes of Sneyd or Abdull he’s impressed me greatly.

DW: If it were from a Wigan squad I would have no hesitation but to choose Sam Powell.

He has been absolutely fabulous this year and has come of age. But if the vote was open for all teams, then another hooker who has caught my eye all year has been Danny Houghton from Hull FC.

Year on year Danny ends up as top tackler in his club but his spirit for the game has been second to none in 2016. In my opinion he should have won the Lance Todd Trophy last weekend but I would like to see him lift the Man of Steel in 2016.

JC: My Man of Steel will probably shock a few fans but it would have to be Sam Powell. The lad has stood up and been counted in the absence of Micky Mac.

He has regularly played all the 80 minutes and topped the tackle count. This season has certainly been the making of him as Super League’s tackle count shows. He has come of age or as a hooker this year often out playing the likes of Roby, Clark and Houghton.