RICHIE Mathers made headlines around the world yesterday when he was banned for six months for breaking betting rules.
Unless an appeal is successful, the former Wigan full-back will be prevented from playing at any level from July 28 to the start of next season.
But what hasn’t grabbed the wider interest is the fact there are some fully-fit players at the Warriors who will not play for the same time-frame.
Being in their early 20s.
“It’s like a very long pre-season for us,” said Lewis Tierney, the talented outside back who is among those frozen out by a ludicrous change to the rules this year.
“It’s not good for any of us.”
Fringe players Tierney, Connor Farrell and Rhodri Lloyd have become victims of a shake-up to the game-wide reserve system, which Wigan are keen to address.
Currently, the Under-19s competition has no provisions for open-age players, and from the end of last month, the ‘week to week’ dual-registration system stopped.
Shaun Wane was given an ultimatum once the Super 8s started: Let fringe players stay at partnership club Workington until the end of the season, or keep them at Wigan.
It put him in a an almost-impossible position.
Let them go, and he would leave himself short of cover if injuries or suspensions bite into his squad during the crucial Super 8s phase.
But he knew that, by keeping them at Wigan, he would effectively be preventing them playing until next year.
“I can’t get my head around it,” said Wane.
“Our sport is not big enough for us to prevent players – especially young, developing players –a from playing the game.”
And so the fringe players (Tierney, Farrell and Lloyd have all graced the Wigan first-team this year) find themselves training all week with the senior squad, knowing they almost certainly have no match to look forward to at the end of the week.
In-house opposed training sessions on Saturday mornings have been arranged to try and keep them match-fit, but it’s not enough.
It’s left the players, and their families, frustrated.
With no change to the system on the horizon, Wigan have taken it on themselves to try and find a solution.
They and several other clubs including Warrington, St Helens and Leigh have held talks about reviving an ‘A-team’ competition from 2016, maybe in the form of a Lancashire Cup. Talks between leading club officials have been taking place for several weeks, and plans are not yet nailed down.
Some may point the finger of blame at the RFL, but they point out the change to the system was voted through by a majority of clubs – presumably as a cost-cutting measure, though Leeds, too, are happy with the current model.
Super League general manager Blake Solly said last night the governing body’s preference was for a reserve-level competition.
He said they would support clubs who want to organise a voluntary competition, by providing referees and assistance.
But still, many are left shaking their head why a sport has created a problem which didn’t previously exist. “I don’t know what was wrong with the old system,” said England international Liam Farrell, older brother of 21-year-old forward Connor.
“When I was coming up it was Under-21s, but you could have three or four open age players for lads not getting in the team or coming back from injury.
“Now, it’s a bad situation at the back-end of the season, because there are lads here who are more than likely not going to play this year– and if they do, they won’t have played forseveral weeks and they won’t be game-ready.
“I feel for them, something needs to be done because it’s not fair on them.
“There has to be a better way of handling it.”