The 18th Man: Our columnists tackle the burning issues

Fans have picked Oliver Gildart as a stand-out for Warriors this season
Fans have picked Oliver Gildart as a stand-out for Warriors this season

Our 18th Man columnists give their thoughts on 2017.

Who do you want to win the Grand Final?

Ben Reid: Leeds Rhinos.

David Bailey: Hand on heart Castleford deserve to win it this year as they have been the most consistent side and the most attractive to watch as a neutral, however rugby league doesn’t always work like that.

I think if Leeds were to win it, you have to ask yourself if the format is in the best interests of the sport as since its inception only four clubs have lifted the trophy at Old Trafford, and since Bradford’s fall from grace, the last 11 Grand Finals have belonged to Wigan, Saints or Leeds.

Robert Kenyon: Castleford – due to them playing rugby in he way it should be played.

Jon Lyon: On the one hand it is always good to get a new name on the trophy, and Cas’ have played some great stuff this year. However, while I think Cas’ will probably win, I will be (I can hardly utter the words) cheering on Leeds. Maybe it’s because they are underdogs. I think it’s more likely the childish side of me slightly fed up with hearing the overhype around Castleford’s play. Sure they’ve been good to watch, but they’re not the greatest team in the world. I was also irked early in the season when Luke Gale saluted the crowd as he put Cas 12-0 up early on against Wigan at the DW. Sure if you’re 30 points up late in the game go for it, but it was a bit cocky to me.

Sean Lawless: I would like Castleford not to win the Grand Final, in fact, I’d like no one to win it with Wigan not being there!

Castleford have been the best side this year by a country mile and deserve to win it, their win against St Helens in the semifinal highlights that they have champion pedigree. I think they will win it, although it pains me to say it.

Darren Wrudd: I simply cannot see beyond a Castleford win unless you factor in the terribly bad referee’s decisions which gifted Leeds two of their titles in recent years. But after the year they have had, it would be tough to see Castleford go down on Saturday, they do deserve the win.

Who was Wigan’s best player last season (and honourable mentions)?

BR: Oliver Gildart – I thought he was tremendous for Wigan in 2017, and couldn’t believe that he didn’t make the Dream Team, not that it matters much. As for some honourable mentions, I think four names come to mind straight away: John Bateman, Sean O’Loughlin, Liam Marshall and Tom Davies.

DB: Sean O’Loughlin’s influence appears to have become more important once again, which has to be a huge concern as he enters the twilight of his career. His new deal is a boost for the Warriors for next season but contingencies’ need to be made, and fast.

John Bateman never leaves anything on the pitch and to me is the natural heir to O’Loughlin’s throne, I’d make him captain in a heartbeat and for me should be a marquee player when Sam Tomkins packs in or George flies the nest to Australia.

Tom Davies had an excellent season and looks to have what it takes, and has stolen the thunder from Liam Marshall despite the latter finishing as top try scorer and Sam Tomkins has become more and more prominent in a slightly different role from full back. But for me the player of the season – even though he has spent a lot of it on the sidelines – is Morgan Escare.

His signing was out of the blue and many had doubts, but he excelled in attack and defence, and in my opinion it is no coincidence that the Warriors’ most impressive form was at the start of the season.

RK: Sean O’Loughlin, with honourable mentions to Liam Marshall, Morgan Escare and Oliver Gildart.

JL: Had he not been injured then Morgan Escare’s early form would certainly have marked him out, but it’s hard to look past Sean O’Loughlin. Lockers has been outstanding, and thankfully relatively injury-free, luckily for Wigan, as we have lost every game he hasn’t played in this year, and seem to leak tries as soon as he is benched in games. Honourable mention has to go to Tony Clubb. To come back from having a kidney removed and play so well, he is an inspiration to young players.

SL: For me, Wigan’s best player this year has been Morgan Escare, although he has been out since May I still think he has been Wigan’s best player.

That perhaps reflects unkindly on Wigan’s season post-Escare but he added a new attacking dimension to the side and I am very excited to see him in the cherry and white again next year. Tom Davies would be a close second for me, a winger who is so committed to the cause.

DW: Our own season was once more full of injuries to key players and although it was good to see Sean O’Loughlin reap the plaudits for his immense contribution this year, I would have given just as many to Willie Isa.

Often skirting under the radar, he is the hard working utility player whom we would only miss when he was not here. I rate him very highly for his contribution and he would be my player of 2017.

What’s the biggest issue you want Wigan to address in the off-season?

BR: I think a lot of Wigan fans will say the same, and it’s to bring in an attacking coach.

It’s the only thing that’s really let us down in the last couple of years, and even though we did win the Grand Final back in 2016, we didn’t have the most entertaining season, as fans. This year was more of the same – and it’s strange, because we have such classy players in our side who can play the rugby league of Castleford, while still defending strong.

DB: The over reliance on O’Loughlin has to be there (including game management whenever he takes a breather), but I am going to go with the area of kicking. Wigan have never replaced Pat Richards from a kicking perspective from conversions to kick offs.

A few players have tried but none have given that assurance that a champion side gets from its dead ball specialist. That and Wigan’s last tackle options aside from George’s kicks to Budgie, leave a lot to be desired. I can’t even remember the last time the Warriors kicked a 40/20 either. It’s all well and good the chairman saying buying a kicker will imbalance the squad but really, there has to be a solution somewhere.

RK: Style of play, we have the talent to play a more swashbuckling style of attack and the players should be allowed to do that.

JL: Wigan desperately need an attacking coach. We seem to have run out of ideas and poor George Williams is left running across field looking for non existent runners or trying to find a gap himself. We need to come up with some set moves as we can’t keep relying on Williams kicks to find the winger forever and a day. Hopefully an off season of practise and the return of Escare will solve our other major problem of not having a quality goal kicker.

SL: I think Wigan’s biggest issue at the moment is attacking fluidity – its not existent. Go back three seasons and the Sky pundits and namely, Tony Smith, were critical of Wigan’s apparent prescribed, systematic attacking approach. It feels that 2016 and 2017 saw Shaun Wane attempt to move away from this and to be honest, the attacking has gone down him – both statically and visually. I think most fans want to see the attacking flair of Williams, Tomkins, Gildart et al let loose a little bit more next year, ironically this may be done by going back to the systems that worked so well between 2010 and 2015.

DW: Through the off season, I would like Wigan to address the match day experience for the fans. I know they have big plans for this and are generating ideas to make game day more than an 80 minute fix. Both before and after the games having a reason to be there for events outside the ground or at our wonderful new Robin Park facility next door could be a game changer for many and bring season ticket sales back to where they should be.

If Wigan sign one player for 2018, what position would you want it to be?

BR: Loose forward – a couple of days ago, Sean O’Loughlin announced he is to finish his illustrious career at Wigan Warriors, and I couldn’t be happier.

However, I think we should actively be looking to find the player who will go on to replace Lockers in the future, and bed them in now. It would be great to bring a young, hungry player to the club, let them learn the game from O’Loughlin and when his time comes, he’s taken a huge step forward before he’s touched a ball for us.

DB: There appears to be little wiggle room on the cap with most senior players contracted for next year and beyond.

If Tommy decides to hang up his boots then the obvious vacancy would be a half back to complement Williams, and if he can kick goals then it’s a double whammy.

There is talk of Sam moving into the halves to leave Escare in at full back which could work and Escare is also handy with the boot. If that happens then we need a tough no-nonsense prop to rough things up in the middle. The return of Flower will be a fantastic boost but when was the last time Wigan had an aggressive mean roughhouse prop that intimidated the opposition?

RK: A ginormous no-nonsense grafting prop – we have the talent all over the pitch in all the other positions. We also have strength in depth in all other positions with Escare, Davies, Marshall, Forsyth, Shorrocks, Woods, Ganson, Wells, Bretherton, Davies and Gregson ready to push on next year but we are a little short in the front row.

I hate people calling them middles and don’t like playing second rowers there, I want a big tall grafting, no-nonsense, old school, tougher than a cheap steak style prop.

JL: We have good depth in most positions but I would like to see either Burgess move back to the centres, or we sign a world class centre to partner Gildart, who has progressed superbly this year.

I may be in a minority of one here, but Anthony Gelling just isn’t consistent enough for my liking. Every few games he will have a blinder and score a sensational try or throw a crazy pass to create something, but is that often enough for a club with designs on the trophies?

SL: I would like Wigan to sign a new scrum-half but I think Jake Shorrocks could be the answer to that conundrum in 2018, working with Thomas Leuluai in what may be his final season.

I think Wigan need new blood in the front row, we need a prop that can eat up the metres and play long minutes. They don’t need to be a “wrecking ball” a 2018 version of Andy Coley would be great!

DW: Honestly, none springs to mind but bear with me on this.

With Ben Flower ready to run in two weeks’ time, the pack will be boosted again. Morgan Escare will no doubt fight for full-back freeing up Sam Tomkins to slot into either half back position and give great competition for places. With these players and several more enjoying a proper pre-season without injury and the whole squad filled with the inevitable hunger that this season will leave, I can see a real reaction come the new year in how we play the game and how the players grow in confidence. We have a fantastic squad already and with some healthy bodies, we really don’t need any more.