It isn’t lost on Warriors coach Shaun Wane that tonight’s game is a tough one to call – as much as that may sound like a cliche.
If you were to present the results from the first four rounds of the season and the league table to a non-rugby league fan and ask them to pick a winner before the sides get underway tonight, they would more than likely plump for Wigan.
Joint top against ninth doesn’t look like an enticing encounter, but the fact Leeds are in the lower position illustrates just how deceptive the embryonic Super League table can be. Aside from suffering a hammering against table-toppers Widnes in round two, Leeds’ biggest Super League loss so far this season has been four points, and their opponents in those games, Warrington and Catalans, are hardly lightweights. And Wane agrees the Rhinos’ current position is a false
“I think so,” he said of their results so far when asked if they are deceptive.
“They could easily have got a win in Perpignan and Watkins, Hall, Burrow... they have players who can burn you.”
Leeds haven’t left the DW Stadium with a win since a 20-6 success in 2013, but their last two clashes against Wigan, in last season’s Super 8s and Grand Final, have yielded better results for the Yorkshire side.
But Wane insists the hurt from October’s 22-20 Grand Final loss won’t be used as fuel tonight – there are more important things to concentrate on than a revenge mission.
“The Grand Final has not been mentioned,” said the coach. “I just spoke about their individuals.”
And as difficult the result will be to call, one thing is almost certain – it will be entertaining. Wigan and Leeds have a habit of producing quality games, pleasing to watch for neutrals. Last year’s Magic Weekend fixture stands out as a classic, as does Wigan’s 26-24 win at the DW Stadium last September.
“It’s up there. A lot of mutual respect between the clubs,” said Wane on the fixture. “We’ve had some outstanding games, both teams show a lot of desire, they’re two competitive clubs and for many fans this is the pick of the season.”
Having got their season up and running with a 20-16 win over Huddersfield last weekend, Leeds will arrive in Wigan tonight with Jamie Jones-Buchanan set to make his first appearance since last July and Mitch Achurch making his comeback after missing the last couple of outings.
Tonight’s game, in front of the Sky Cameras, will be marked for them as an ideal opportunity to justify their champions tag.
“Leeds are a fantastic club, a fantastic team and what they did last year was unbelievable,” said Wane.
To thicken the plot, Warriors’ start to 2016, despite being unbeaten in Super League, has drawn criticism.
Attacking moves haven’t always stuck, and commanding leads against Huddersfield, Salford and Hull FC were all surrendered to ensure nail-biting finishes.
But like Leeds, Wigan have had their own injury problems (Wane was down to his last 17 fit players with Super League experience last week) and it can be argued not enough credit has been given for the way they have fought for victories which previous Warriors sides might well have lost.
On top of that, Wigan’s England internationals joined the squad late in pre-season, suggesting they are still climbing to top speed rather than struggling.
“We’ve been far from at our best. We can improve a lot,” admitted Wane.
“(But) I’m happy unbeaten, we didn’t get too much time as a full squad, it shows the team has a good winning mentality.”
Wigan’s 19-man squad:
Bateman, Bretherton, Burke, Charnley, Clubb, Farrell, Flower, Gelling, Gildart, Gregson, Manfredi, Mossop, O’Loughlin, Powell, Sarginson, Smith, Sutton, Tautai, Williams.Leeds’ 19-man squad:
Hardaker, Watkins, Hall, Burrow, Galloway, Falloon, Cuthbertson, Jones-Buchanan, Sutcliffe, Singleton, Garbutt, Keinhorst, Achurch, Mullally, Walters, Handley, Baldwinson, Lilley, Ferres.