Talking rugby league: There’s a difference between ‘doing well’ and ‘playing well’

Liam Farrell scored Wigan's only try last week
Liam Farrell scored Wigan's only try last week

At the Riversiders meeting on Tuesday night, I was asked to assess Wigan’s season so far.

Tough one.

Wigan have been criticised in some quarters for their attack this season, and that has been particularly fierce over the last few days.

In contrast, others have echoed the remarks coming from the Wigan camp - that things aren’t too bad.

Which argument is right? Both of them, to an extent.

Wigan are doing well, but they’re not playing well.

Or, more precisely, they’re not playing particularly well with the ball.

Most agree they have coped admirably with a raft of injuries. They have blooded eight academy-products and are third in the Super League ladder.

Imagine Hull FC without Marc Sneyd, Danny Houghton and Gareth Ellis... now remember the corresponding players were missing from Wigan’s side last week.

And Challenge Cup finalists Hull FC and Warrington have only one more win each which, given the circumstances, suggests the Warriors have done pretty good so far.

Now to their performances.

Their character has been admirable and their defence robust - only Warrington have conceded fewer points.

The issue, of course, is in attack, where they lag way behind their rivals - and have done for much of the season.

And Shaun Wane knows it.

Not long ago, he said Wigan were playing at “five or six out of 10”, and I’ve not seen too much since then to make me think that has changed.

Their problems were illustrated last Thursday - in glorious HD - when they managed just a solitary try against Widnes in front of the Sky Sports cameras.

Sure, we all want a more competitive, unpredictable Super League, and a consequence of that means more losses - but no-one would deny it was a frustrating night for the Warriors, not least the players and coaches themselves.

They had plenty of possession, good position and heaps of penalty decisions, but their attack was one-dimensional and too predictable.

Which is not to take away praise from Widnes, who defended well.

But Wigan didn’t have much variety in the volume of raids on their opponents’ line.

Fans, critics and commentators have offered up a spectrum of reasons for their faltering attack, ranging from the sensible (injuries / disruption to the side) to the debatable (Wigan didn’t replace assistant coach Paul Deacon / other teams have ‘found them out’) to the laughable (it has always been this way).

It hasn’t always been this way.

Just glancing at Wigan’s past results at the KC Stadium - a venue where Wane has yet to lose - shows they have posted more than 40 points on four of the last six visits under his control.

No, this has been something new. And I think personnel has been the big issue.

Wigan have some very talented players but I’d still argue they are a side better than the sum of their parts.

Their best attacks are structured, not off-the-cuff. Those double-layered, cascading sweeping moves, involving several players in different angles, can confuse and stretch overwhelmed defences.

Trouble is, when there are so many moving parts, when timing and speed are so important, the combinations need to be slick.

And when they’re not, they become “easy to read” – George Williams’ words – and easy to defend against.

Now consider this: Not once this year has Wane been able to name the same 17, in the same positions, for successive weeks.

Injuries are inevitable in rugby league, but Wigan have been particularly hit hard this year.

They had more England internationals (five) missing last week than most clubs have altogether... not to mention another player (Dom Manfredi) who would surely have been in the frame this year.

Which is not to excuse the loss against Widnes, because I still felt they had the players to get the job done, in an ugly or pretty way - like they often have this season.

Is it greedy to want to win, and win in style? Perhaps.

But fans buy the tickets and ‘tune in’ (are we still allowed to use that phrase?) on TV, and that’s what they demand. I remember thinking 2012 was a great season to be a Wigan fan, but they lost in two semi-finals - and I know Saints supporters who didn’t enjoy the 2014 season, yet they finished with a Grand Final win!

And ‘style’ against ‘success’ debates have long raged in many sports.

But Sam Tomkins was right when he said some fans will find a reason to moan about anything. Be honest, they would.

If Wigan had won by 40 last week, some would have have moaned about the Super 8s structure.

Last year, there were moans about their poor away form.

Now, it’s the attack.

Yes, it has been frustrating to watch at times.

And it’s been inconsistent – contrast the lows with the highlights of Magic, Hull away, Catalans away...

But I would still put much, much more emphasis on the fact Wigan are doing well - and the fact they are 80 minutes from a fourth successive Grand Final - than the issue about their attack.

I’d be more worried if they had players who weren’t good enough.

Or there was trouble in the camp. Or they were leaking more points.

Or they were losing more games. Or they were lower down the table.

Everyone needs a reality check at times, and the truth is, I’d argue fans at most (not all) clubs have had it worse.

Salford, Hull KR, Catalans - big-spending Catalans, with their A-list recruits - and plenty others.

And for evidence of that, consider this: when Wigan walk out alongside the Challenge Cup winners in front of the TV cameras tomorrow night, Leeds will also be taking to the pitch.

To play Batley.

Players have this week been voting for the Man of Steel.

Their choices will be made public this season to make the process more transparent (There were rumours that, in 2011, none of the Castleford players voted for Sam Tomkins to improve eventual-winner Rangi Chase’s chances).

It’s a tough choice, because no one player has stormed the league. But if try-scoring freak Denny Solomona, Gareth Ellis, John Bateman or Chris Hill took the prize, I’d have no complaints.

One to keep an eye on.

Last Thursday night, scores of fans saw Shaun Wane cut his press conference short when he took issue with being asked whether he was under pressure.

He didn’t know, and many journalists were also unaware, the conference was being streamed live on Super League’s Facebook page. It has prompted a debate in the media about the practice.

Which is not to say Wane’s abrupt exit should not have been reported, it should. And some would argue the footage is less dramatic than the ‘Wane stormed out’ stories written by journalists.

No. The issue is some clubs, and many reporters, aren’t happy with the conferences beamed live. The last time I was at St Helens, there was a sign saying it was banned. I thought it was the same at Wigan, too.

Those for it ask ‘why not?’ The press conference is a free-for-all with no embargoes - it’s effectively a public event, only with reporters serving as the middle-men.

The argument against seems to hinge on the fact coaches are available for broadcast interviews - the press conference is for written journalists (web and print).

It’ll be interesting to keep tabs on it, see where the water finds its level.

Me? In theory, I have no problem with it being ‘live’. In reality, even veteran players and coaches clam up when they know they’re being filmed.

And if the practice carries on, I – and other – reporters will probably wait to conduct our interviews ‘off camera’, after the press conferences have finished.

Which will raise the problem for those screening them: Who will ask the questions in the actual press conferences?

New Zealand international Jason Taumalolo, 23, is to play for North Queensland Cowboys on Saturday despite being charged by police for throwing eggs at cars.

Yes, you read that right.

Unbelievable...