Talking RL: Is Wembley really Wigan’s only chance of silverware this year?

Wigan are off to Wembley - but can they make Old Trafford, too?
Wigan are off to Wembley - but can they make Old Trafford, too?

So... did I miss anything?!

I’ve returned from a fortnight family holiday to find Wigan are going to Wembley, aren’t (apparently) going to Old Trafford, and are going to Sydney to play a home match next Feburary.

Dom Manfredi would have nowhere to play without the reserves

Dom Manfredi would have nowhere to play without the reserves

I suppose that’s one way of avoiding any DW/pitch problems!

Those three developments, in order...

I actually watched the Challenge Cup semi-final from a tiny Tabac in a beautiful French village called Roquebrun.

The game was screened on Canal+, complete with enthusiastic French commentary.

Given I usually watch Wigan from the sterile, often-crammed, press boxes, frantically typing notes during breaks in play, I can’t tell you how good it was to sit back and watch them with a beer in one hand, yelling encouragement – and moans – at the TV!

And now Wigan have got a trip to Wembley – for the first time in four years – to look forward to.

Given the way they have risen in big sudden-death meetings this season – Cronulla, Warrington, Salford – it offers hope they can do the same against Hull FC.

Everyone has their own gauges of what they find acceptable.

And if Wigan can win the Challenge Cup, in a year in which they won the World Club Challenge, then it would – for me – mark a successful year, regardless of what happens in Super League.

Ah, Super League.

Has Wigan’s top-four dream crumbled?

Certainly, judging by the reaction to Friday’s defeat at Leeds, it would seem so.

They are now four points off a play-offs spot. It’s not impossible for them to climb into the mix, but it’ll be difficult.

They will need a late surge of form like last year or, going further back, like 2003 to keep their title defence alive – and even that may not be enough. They have slipped into the uncomfortable position of hoping other results go their way.

But if they can win their next two games – both at home, against Huddersfield and Salford – and fourth-placed St Helens drop a game (against Hull FC or Leeds) during that time, then at least they will head to Wembley two points behind Saints, with a derby at Langtree Park the following week.

Not the best time to be playing a well-rested and in-form Saints, especially given it will be Australian star Ben Barba’s debut in the Red Vee, but they will at least give themselves a chance.

I hope that scenario pans out, and Wigan remain in the mix, to make the rest of the season interesting as much as hunger for more success!

Because if their run-in mirrors those of other sides who have scraped into the top-eight previously – the likes of Catalans and Widnes – it will make for a tepid home-run to their stuttering Super League campaign.

First, they must beat Huddersfield; and let’s hope we see a much-better defensive display than the soft performance at Leeds last Friday.

Wembley finalists Wigan and Hull, of course, will break new ground next year with a Super League game in Sydney next February.

In the days I’ve been back, I’ve heard and read enough grumbles to know the decision has not been universally welcomed.

Some Wigan fans want their home games at home – it doesn’t sound a lot to ask for, right?

And I understand, and sympathise, with that view.

But regular readers of this column will know one of my biggest problems with rugby league is it isn’t innovative enough and so, for that reason, I applaud Wigan for making this drastic move.

I’ve said it before – if a sport tries to stay still, it will go backwards. Because it is operating in an environment when others are being more dynamic, invading new territory, growing in popularity.

I’ve been to a sold-out NFL game at Wembley and a sold-out UFC event at Manchester Arena, and walked away from both wondering what rugby league – or, more precisely, Super League – could do to give itself a shot in the arm.

Wigan have taken the initiative themselves, organising a ground-breaking match against Hull FC in Wollongong and then an exhibition match against Michael Maguire’s Souths in front of a crowd hoped to reach 40,000, and sure to grab plenty of attention.

Will the travel impact on their league season?

Possibly.

Do they risk injuring players in a dressed-up friendly against Souths?

Absolutely.

But that was the case when Wigan played Warrington in America, and Bath at Twickenham, too; and in hindsight, we can reflect on those innovative fixtures with nostalgic fondness, and realise they – in part – helped develop the club’s, and the sport’s, profile.

The same way Wigan’s matches in Sydney will next February.

These matches will also swell the club’s coffers, with a commercial deal bosses are crowing about and the potential to bring in new, previously untapped, sponsors.

Finance is an issue many fans don’t concern themselves with, but even they must accept it’s healthier for a club to be standing on its own two feet – breaking even or making a profit – rather than relying on a millionaire owner to plough in hundreds of thousands of pounds to plug the gap.

And there is a small, extra benefit for the games: player retention and recruitment. In a salary cap era, when other clubs can pay offer players just as much or more, giving players these life-experiences – and letting them be a part of an exciting early-season venture – can only be a good thing.

I’ve long found it strange that, at every round, drawn Challenge Cup games go to golden-point – unless it was the final, which would be replayed in Sheffield days later.

A scenario which would suit no-one, given the time of the season.

This year, thankfully, the Wembley decider will go to golden-point if it’s a draw after 80 minutes.

Common-sense has, at last, prevailed.

Dom Manfredi returns to the pitch this Saturday – exactly a year since suffering a serious knee injury.

I’m pleased for him. The fact he was the only Wigan player included in last year’s Dream Team – a season in when they won the Grand Final, no less – tells you how well he did last season.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for a player to be sidelined for 12 months.

He’ll make his return playing in a reserve game at St Helens.

But imagine, for a second, if Wigan were like most clubs – and chose not to run a reserve team.

When would he play? Where would he play?

He’s too old for the Under-19s. He can’t be loaned or dual-reg’d out at this stage in the season.

He couldn’t expect an instant first-team recall, with no game-time under his belt, and Tom Davies and Joe Burgess playing well. Couldn’t even, really, hope for a bench spot – who carries a winger on the bench, right?

With no reserves, Manfredi may have to wait until next season to get a game.

Imagine what that would be like for him. Missing a year through injury and then – on getting the green-light to resume his career – knowing it may be six months before he could play again.

Simply because there are no fixtures he can play in.

I feel sorry for any players in similar positions at the clubs who have decided not to run reserve sides. And there are quite a few.

Which is not to say the current system for those who operate second-strings – Wigan, Warrington, St Helens, Hull FC, and several lower-league outfits – is perfect.

It’s far from it.

Wigan have had to call off four reserve fixtures because of a lack of numbers. Why?

Well, strangely, clubs which operate three-tiers – first-team, reserves and Under-19s – are limited to having the same number of contracted players (65) as those who only operate two tiers (first-team and U19s). How is that fair?

Which part explains why Saturday’s match is only Wigan’s third reserve game this season.

As I say, far from perfect. But it’s better than no reserves at all.

Salford and Leigh don’t even operate academy sides. And part of me doesn’t blame them for looking after their own interests – I blame the RFL for giving them the option.

There is a Yellow Pages-thick book of criteria which clubs must meet to be in Super League.

Having a press officer, having a welfare officer... even what power the floodlights need to be on night games.

Yet incredibly, shamefully, there is no requirement to develop young players. It is left to clubs to choose whether they want to do that.

The governing body needs to show some governance. Because if clubs didn’t produce players, there’ll be no players to watch. And no need to turn on the floodlights at all.

The Riversiders can always be banked on to throw a good ‘do’.

And their presentation dinner on Saturday September 9, in the Marquee at the DW Stadium, should be no different.

Tickets are £30 members and £35 non-members – call 07522 479625 or buy tickets from the south stand bar on matchdays.