THERE was no bombshell announcement, no shock, no drama.
On Saturday night, even Leeds’ veteran prop Jamie Peacock Tweeted he “absolutely” expected Wigan to pick the Rhinos as their ClubCall choice and – sure enough – they did.
The Warriors will host the reigning Super League champions at the DW Stadium this Friday, a decision which sends Warrington to St Helens the following day. The two winners will progress to the Grand Final at Old Trafford the following week.
Coach Shaun Wane said it had been “an easy” call based on Leeds’ fifth-placed finish but was quick to talk up the qualities of their opponents.
He said: “They are a fantastic team, their front-row are in form, they have attacking threats. As a squad they’re very tough and we need to perform at our best.
“They’ve proved that they can win big games – they did it last year – and I have a lot of admiration for Brian McDermott.”
Wigan earned the dubious ClubCall honour after emerging from the first round as the highest-ranked winners.
Wane waited until after the conclusion of Saturday’s game, when Warrington beat Hull FC 24-12, to phone his coaching staff, chairman Ian Lenagan and a group of senior players.
Although Leeds have proved their big-game credentials in the past two years – winning the Super League, World Club Challenge and reaching Wembley twice – Wigan couldn’t ignore their fifth-placed finish.
Throw in two tough play-off matches already, against Wakefield and Friday’s 27-20 win at Catalan, and the possible suspension of star halfback Danny McGuire – placed on report in that game – and it was ultimately a straight-forward decision.
Having lost hooker Mike McIlorum to a three-game ban recently, Wane will be watching with interest to see what punishment McGuire gets.
“Danny is a quality player for them,” he added. “But without him, they still have a lot of attacking threats in their side.”
Friday’s semi-final against Leeds certainly promises to be a spicy encounter.
The rivalry between the two sides has grown in recent seasons, and although Wigan hammered the Rhinos 50-8 at Headingley in their last Super League encounter, Brian McDermott’s outfit took revenge weeks later by dumping the Warriors out of the Challenge Cup in the semi-finals.
McDermott said he expected the ClubCall decision, and reckons their recent win over the Warriors in the Cup will give the home side a ‘revenge factor’.
He added: “In reality it will count more for Wigan, for motivation - it’s a big challenge ahead of us.”
Leeds made history by winning the title from fifth spot last year. McDermott added: “If we are to do it again, we’ll have to do something special.”
Wembley winners Warrington, without a title in 57 years, have proved something of a bogey side for Wigan in recent times – they have completed Super League doubles over them in the past two seasons.
Chairman Ian Lenagan, who defended the quality of Super League and the play-offs system when he appeared on Sky Sports News to announce the ClubCall decision yesterday, said “neutrals” wanted a Wigan-Warrington showdown at Old Trafford in the decider.
Pointedly, Wolves coach Tony Smith – a critic of the ClubCall system in the past – was absent from the DW Stadium yesterday. He sent assistant coach Willie Poching in his place.
Wolves, who finished second in the ladder this season, will travel to Saints on Saturday – a repeat of their opening play-off encounter which Mike Rush’s men won 28-6 at the Halliwell Jones.