The 18th Man Column: Warriors and Challenge Cup go hand in hand
Wigan and the Challenge Cup are synonymous and the Warriors are 80 minutes away from another final.
Wigan have played a record 30 Challenge Cup finals, winning the famous trophy on 19 occasions.
In their way of a 31st final are Salford, a team that has impressed many this season but whose form has dropped off somewhat over the past few weeks. It feels like Salford have been focussed on the semi-final since drawing Wigan, so much so, I think their form has been affected by it. Wigan, since the quarter-final against Warrington, have had a couple of setbacks. The draw against Huddersfield and the limp performance in defeat in the round 22 against Warrington. Neither side looks to be playing at their best at the moment, Salford suffering a 25-0 defeat at Leigh last week whereas Wigan had a slight confidence boosting win against a young Leeds side.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that the remainder of Wigan’s season was Challenge Cup or bust. It doesn’t look quite like that now, with Wigan only three points off fourth place but with a Challenge Cup final along with the World Club Challenge things start to look a look more positive. Salford bring in Manu Vatuvei and Tyrone McCarthy for the semi-final, a move which I can understand but a move that I think could work in Wigan’s favour. To bring two new players into a game in which you have ultimately decided is your biggest game, a game which I think the Salford camp are building up too much – could be their downfall. No matter how good a player is, to bring them in after not playing for such a long time in Vatuvei’s case and to bring him in for semi-final, for me is risky. Vatuvei can score you tries, no doubt about that, but how much confidence will his centre have in his defensive reads? They need game time, of which they don’t have. I think Vatuvei will have a big say in which team gets to Wembley, one way or another …
A convincing score line if not a clinical performance against Leeds ended round 23 on a high. Much has been made of the young Leeds team, how many were injured and how many were rested I’m not too sure. Certainly no-one gave them a chance against Wigan, and this is the sort of team we have been putting out for half the season and more.
If people are prepared to write off Leeds and assume an out of sorts Wigan attack will put 50 or 60 points on them, then why are some Wigan fans still critical? We’re not towards the top of the table right now when we have often had up to 13 first choice players missing, and have still won games and narrowly lost them. Credit where it is due to the senior and youth players that we won as many games as we did, with a team that changed every week. As soon as we got one player back we lost two more.
Naturally, now we have most of our players back the fans expect us to be blowing teams away. The fact we are not is partly down to a lack of new ideas due to seemingly not having an attack coach. It’s also down to players having to build up match fitness, and it takes time for combinations to form again. As a team we will only get better in the Super 8s, and the one small consolation of our shocking injury list is that most of our players should be relatively fresh having missed half the season. George Williams seems to be coming under criticism from keyboard warriors. Too greedy, too much kicking, it’s easy to single one player out, as he is our main creative outlet. Despite our having scored 31 less tries than Castleford this year, George leads the try assists chart with 26, six ahead of his nearest rival and eight ahead of Cas’ Luke Gale. He has also weighed in with nine tries of his own, many created by himself. How many of Burgess and Marshall’s 36 tries has he created with his long passes or boot? George only kicks when it seems it is the best, and sometimes only, way to break down a defence. More often than not we score or get a repeat set. He needs more dummy runners and players coming back on the inside to create more. A lack of runners means he often runs across field without having anyone to offload to. At 22 he should not be expected to do it all himself. Let’s get behind the young lad, he will keep getting better and we are lucky to have him.
If ever there was a way to begin answering your critics, then the performance last week was a great start. In tough conditions with the rain pouring down, Wigan at last began to show some proper structural organisation as most players were switched on for the full 80 minutes. Our attacking line was confident in standing deep and momentum was gained as the whole line moved up together as soon as the ball was played. This saw players running onto the ball and standing up the Leeds defence who simply could not commit to the tackle with so much activity. We made the Yorkshire side look quite ordinary which says much of where we are at with our performances. Our defence as we all know, is capable of holding any team back, but the desire has to be there to do the painful yards, put the effort into chasing lost causes and keeping concentration levels high for the duration. This time it was and I am sure that Leeds knew that they had come across a Wigan side who were simply not ready to sit down and take another loss. Of course the difficulty now is to try and convince the crowds that it was not just another one off, like so many times we have got all fired up to prove a point, then point proven, go back to looking slightly disinterested in the result overall. This will take a real dedication from the players, Shaun Wane and the back room staff can only do so much. It is simply whether they want it bad enough to make the effort. It all sounds a little negative sometimes, but believe me I could not be more optimistic. I know that we can win two more trophies this year, I know that Frank Paul Nuuausala can smash through defences like they were not there and that Sean O’Loughlin is finding some of the energy that he had as a 20-year-old, that Sam Tomkins will eventually shave off that beard and sooner or later, Liam Marshall will be old enough to grow one. But in it all, I am a Wigan supporter, with all the ups and downs that go with it and I would not change it for all the tea in China.
Now with an 80-minute spell between us and a Wembley trip, it is time to put Salford in their place. No sentiment this week, just play like you can and smash them.
This week sees the return of the Challenge Cup. Rumours are that the RFL in all their wisdom, unable to leave things alone, are looking for wholesale changes to the Challenge Cup.
One of the rumours mentioned was around changing the venue and moving the final away from Wembley (probably move it to Coventry and play it on a Monday morning). Another rumour was about changing the concept to a 9s competition. (I currently have my head in my hands and have just topped up the swear jar). The more I think about it the more frustrated I get with the RFL. What needs to happen is that things should go back to how they were and look for small changes rather than wholesale changes. The Challenge Cup should go back to its original date and original format. How often does the FA make wholesale changes to the rules of football or the formats of tournaments? It doesn’t happen, it’s just rugby league that just can’t settle. The Challenge Cup is sacred and is rugby league’s pinnacle and always will be in my eyes, probably is for most fans who started watching rugby league pre-Super League. When I speak to non-rugby league fans from other parts of the country a lot of them say they used to go to the Challenge Cup final but have stopped in the last 10 years plus, probably since the old Wembley was knocked down. Having the final on the last bank holiday weekend of the year and during the school’s six- weeks holiday will affect numbers too. It may be because of the changed date and changed format, the more you change the Challenge Cup in any way, the more you alienate the casual or neutral fans.
Another reason I think interest may have waned is the BBCs coverage of the tournament. I’d tender the tournament out to other TV channels to see what they can come up with in terms of money and exposure. The BBC have neglected the Challenge Cup in pursuit of other more glamorous sports in my opinion. The commentary team is an old boys club and what the hell does Robbie Paul add? Dave Woods can’t hide his enthusiasm for the game but lacks a strong, identifiable and infectious voice to be main commentator, whereas Ray French and Eddie Wareing for all their faults did. If it were up to me, I’d change the dates back to original date in May, tender the Challenge Cup to other channels and change the commentary team. On the plus side, we stand a very good chance of beating Salford and making the trip to Wembley, come on Wigan!
Last week was weird. I’ve never been so bored at a rugby league game in a long time, and we won 34-0, it was so bizarre.
It was such a dead game.
There was no real spark to it at all. I thought we played well, but it wasn’t a great encounter, and you could sense that from the quietness in the stands.
I can’t believe I was feeling so downbeat following such a good win against Leeds Rhinos.
I felt for Leeds a little bit. I thought their young lads did themselves proud on the night, and were quite unfortunate to be on the end of such a hammering. We struggled through the first half, and didn’t look to comfortable in attack, which is a growing problem. Our defence was great, which it has been for a good few weeks now. Albeit the Rhinos didn’t push us too hard, it was still solid.
Overall, it was a great warm-up match for us going into this week’s huge Challenge Cup semi-final against Salford.
I’ve been looking forward to this game since the draw was made. I’ve not been this excited since the World Club Challenge earlier this year. It’s such a big game, and against tough opposition. I fancy us to get the job done. However, Salford are flying this season, and while they’ve dipped a little in recent weeks, they still managed to finish the regular season in the top four. They’ve recruited well, and brought in a couple of new faces this past week, ones who may come in to face us on Sunday. I don’t see it being a walkover, as I think it could be a real nail-biter for a good portion of the game. The atmosphere will be booming - I just hope the weather is good for the occasion. Hopefully Liam Farrell makes the squad, he makes such a difference to that left-edge when he’s there. To some, the Challenge Cup is the only trophy left that we can realistically win. It’s a huge game, and one we really can’t afford to lose. I’m already dreaming about that trip to Wembley - but trying my absolute upmost to not think too much about it. I’m pumped, excited, nervous and ready for kick-off.
Two points gained in the quest for a top four finish, a clean sheet and no fresh injury worries going into the all-important Challenge Cup semi-final game against Salford. I think that just about sums up the positives from a comfortable, if not convincing 34-0 victory against the Leeds Rhinos last week. Normally, such a victory against one of our historic rivals would be shouted from the rooftops. I mean, on paper, this was the first time Leeds had been nilled since 1998.
However, Leeds fielded a vastly inexperienced side, prioritising the cup game against Hull, and should they win that with the returning players, then it will be a wise decision surely. I am not one of those that calls for clubs to be fined or docked points for the team they put out. If a player is named in the squad at the start of the season, then who are the RFL to dictate who can and cannot be played. Yes some players are considered starters by fans and experts alike, but for me a coach should be allowed to field whatever team he sees fit. If in this example, Leeds position in the top two is secure, then the coach should be afforded the liberty of resting his players as he has done his job.
Back to the game itself, Leeds were just outmuscled by the strong Wigan line up, continually being forced back, and forced into errors. It felt more like a testimonial or pre-season game and the atmosphere likewise. The apathy evident in the unusually small following from the Rhinos who often fill the entire away section. This weekend sees the Challenge Cup semi-final against the Salford Red Devils and whilst finishing above Wigan in the table, the Red Devils have hit a brick wall form wise, losing the last three games and conceding over 100 points in the process. This game is crucial in my opinion for both clubs respective seasons. Win and not only do you get the trip to Wembley and a shot at a major piece of silverware, but also gives some confidence as the Super 8s get underway. Lose however and Salford will be four games without a win whilst the doubts would come flooding back to a Warriors team who can no longer blame injuries for poor form. There will be some interesting decisions on the wings for both teams. Ian Watson will have to decide whether to risk new stellar signing Manu Vatuvei after “ The Beast” joined from the NZ Warriors, but I am not sure how I’d feel if I lost my place to the new signing in such a crucial game. Meanwhile Wane will have to decide whether or not Tom Davies did enough against the Rhinos to maintain his place ahead of Liam Marshall. It really is a tough call as they are very different wingers, but Davie offers more in doing the hard yards. Both have had brilliant debut seasons but I just think with the way we are playing at the moment, we would get more out of Davies than Marshall.