Wigan forward Joel Tomkins believes the sacking of Keiron Cunningham will make St Helens an even tougher proposition in the Good Friday derby at the DW Stadium.
Cunningham’s near 24-year association with the club was ended abruptly on Monday when he was axed as head coach and Tomkins says the Saints players will be aiming to demonstrate their loyalty to their departed boss.
He’s a really good bloke and I’m sure all their players will have a massive amount of respect for himJoel Tomkins
“I was shocked to hear that he’d left the club,” Tomkins said. “He’s a really good bloke and I’m sure all their players will have a massive amount of respect for him.
“I was thinking about how we would react if we were in that situation and I think it will probably give their players an extra bit of motivation to go out and win it.
“I think Keiron has a good relationship with his players and he’s probably a friend to a lot of them, played with some. I’m sure they will want to go out on Friday and do a job for Keiron as much as anything.”
Cunningham’s assistant Jamahl Lolesi has prepared St Helens for the game, along with Sean Long and Under-19s coach Derek Traynor, while the club begin the search for a successor.
Lolesi said: “We can’t make wholesale changes, we’ll try to make a few subtle changes here and there and come up with a game plan that will maybe give us a shot of winning the game.”
Wigan will be buoyed by the news of George Williams’ big contract extension and the return of hooker Michael McIlorum and skipper Sean O’Loughlin but most attention will be on St Helens scrum-half Matty Smith, who will face his old club for the first time since leaving Wigan after October’s Grand Final triumph.
“It was probably my toughest decision to let him go because he’s a good guy and he’s done a lot of good things for us,” said Warriors coach Shaun Wane.
“I rate him very highly. But he’s going to get some stick on Friday.
“He’s smart, all the players love him, and he’ll always be friends with us. He left in a really good manner. We’ve got loads of respect for him. But the time was right.
“Our players know what he can do and we will give him plenty of respect. He’s doing some good things at St Helens, but we need to put him under pressure.”
Lolesi is confident the experienced England half-back will be able to cope with the pressure, saying: “I’m sure no one will want to go and win there more than Matty.”
While Wigan and St Helens currently languish unusually in mid-table, there will be bigger Good Friday interest than usual at Castleford, Hull and Salford, who all sit in the top four in the most unpredictable Super League competition ever.
The table-topping Tigers are expecting a full house for the derby against Wakefield and Hull and Salford anticipate their biggest crowds of the season for the visit of Leeds and Leigh respectively.
Castleford have won eight of their last 10 derbies but coach Daryl Powell is wary of the threat posed by fifth-placed Trinity, who are aiming for a fourth successive win.
“We’re expecting a tough game,” Powell said. “They’re playing well. There is a lot of ball movement in them and they are playing with confidence.
“They are a well-balanced team and they look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s a derby so you expect it to be really tough. It’s a really big challenge for us. It should be fantastic, the atmosphere will be awesome.”
Salford, who have climbed to second place on the back of their best run for 20 years, are aiming for a fifth straight victory while Hull have the chance to leapfrog Leeds into third.