The 18th Man: Showing a freedom to express their talents
It would be easy to concentrate on the poor form that Warrington are showing at the moment, and I am sure they will get over their confidence issues and come back stronger next time '“ if this is to be their year the clock is certainly ticking.
But I look at our style of play over the last 10 or 12 games and there has been a shift in emphasis which is serving us well.
Structure in our plays and set-pieces are all very well and a great place to return to when things are going wrong, but in attack we are showing a new freedom to express our talents and skills which is confusing our opponents, as they are used to defending our strict ‘Wigan way’ of doing things.
Unpredictability is certainly a potent weapon which other teams have used against us recently, but coupled with our disciplined defensive attitude, it is providing the fans with a wonderfully entertaining brand of rugby with some impressive results so far.
I was disappointed for John Bateman when I heard of his shoulder injury. I rate Bateman as one of the best second row forwards in the league and it will be like a new, high-quality signing when he returns. However, we seem to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to depth in our squad at the moment.
Not that I want to press our luck by introducing too many new faces, but the club seems to be in a very good place and the aspirations of the chairman to win four trophies is certainly a possibility this year.
Next we welcome Huddersfield to the DW and they are doing it tough at the moment. Going down heavily to Leigh, it may be a chance for us to put a score on and improve our points difference against a side who are low on confidence. But disrespect them at our peril; they really are a sleeping Giant.
One area that many fans criticised Wigan for last season was their attacking flair, or distinct lack of it – Widnes at home in the Super 8s probably being the lowest point. I thought that if I looked at the first four Super League games last year and compared them with this season, I would see a big improvement on points scored. There is difference of 37 points so far, an average of 9.25 points per game (112 in 2017 and 75 in 2016).
The quantity of points shows a good improvement and perhaps that will become a substantial improvement as the season progresses, but one thing that is different is the quality of the attacking. I always think that the number of tries wingers and centres score indicates the quality of an attack – simply a lot of the time, the extra space is created by good attacking play for the outside-backs which creates tries. Wigan’s centres and wings have scored 18 out of 25 tries this season (including WCC), indicating that the fluidity of the attack is good and that the team is now creating better chances for their wingers.
I was very much a Matty Smith fan during his time and Wigan and two Super Leagues, a Challenge Cup and Lance Todd Trophy to his name qualifies him as a success. However, the re-signing of Leuluai has highlighted the attacking direction that we missed when Smith was the senior halfback.
For me, the Green/Smith partnership worked and was successful and during those two seasons, Blake Green was the leader of the two – his experience and directional play allowed Smith to execute the structured drills and focus on his excellent in-play kicking.
The two seasons with Smith as the experienced halfback with Williams, were perhaps the two seasons in which our attacking play faltered and was criticised. Smith and Williams look to excel when they have an organiser alongside them, Williams in particular. Leuluai’s smooth transition back into the side has seen five great performances from Williams alongside him, showing the kind of Man of Steel form that many are tipping him for.
In that respect, Leuluai must be given credit for Williams’ seemingly increased consistency so far this season but also Wigan’s greater attacking flair – playing a brand of rugby which is no longer predictable to fans and opponents alike – a subject which Tony Smith mentioned before the Warrington game. Likewise, Shaun Wane deserves credit, re-signing Leuluai may have been a no-brainer, but to do so, they had to let a great servant in Smith leave but also leave to arch-rivals, St Helens – a decision, that so far is benefitting the team and in particular, George Williams.
Well… last Thursday night was a bit alright, wasn’t it? On the way down to the Halliwell Jones Stadium, there was a real sense of the unknown. It’s tough away at Warrington on the best of days, but with nine first teamers out through injury, it made the job at hand a whole lot tougher. In a game like this, form goes out the window. However, I don’t think many fans would have predicted how the game unfolded… especially for Liam Marshall.
It was a night to remember for young Marshall, who ran in for four tries in only his second ever first team game for Wigan. The kid must be in dreamland. I’m sure even in his wildest dreams, he wouldn’t have imagined scoring four. Wigan would run in for seven tries in total, the other three coming from Liam Farrell, Anthony Gelling and a first for the 19-year old forward Jack Wells, in his fourth game for Wigan. It’s safe to say that it was a great night for the Wigan academy.
The match itself was one of the best away performances that I’ve seen Wigan produce in a good while. Last season we made a name for coming back in games, and pinching them late on. Those are always great, but to be in control of a game, and put in a solid performance for 80 minutes is even better. I know Wane and the players weren’t fully satisfied after the game, calling for us to improve on their defence. But we could win a Grand Final 50-0 and Wane would still find something to pick out as an area of improvement, he’s a perfectionist, and that’s what makes him a great coach.
Wigan will have had a good nine-day rest before their next game, against the struggling Huddersfield Giants this Sunday. It’ll be a welcomed rest for Wane and the players, who have had a hectic start to the campaign.
Going into the game on Sunday, Wigan fans will be confident, and rightly so. I expect Wane to name the same team that faced Warrington, with no players expected back from injury. So, Marshall, Forsyth, Wells and Navarette should be getting another chance to impress.
It should be a comfortable afternoon for Wigan, playing a side who just lost 30-0 to Leigh. However, for it to be so, they will need to turn up with the same intensity as they did last week, and get the job done.
What next for Sam Tomkins? After two injury hit years and yet again missing out on any kind of pre-season training, Sam’s return to the first team doesn’t look quite as certain as previously thought.
A comeback predicted for April, Sam, whilst never saying it publicly, would surely have assumed he would slot straight back into the full back role. The form of Morgan Escare since joining from Catalans has surprised many though, proving much better defensively than expected and also having slotted seamlessly into Wigan’s’ attacking structures.
His lightening pace and excellent footwork, as well as his improving goal kicking, have done his long-term chances as Wigan’s last line of defence no harm at all and Escare would be extremely unlucky to be dropped for Tomkins immediately on his return.
Tomkins is a marquee signing though, on a considerable contract, and is still the most marketable name on Wigan’s roster, and it seems hard to imagine he won’t play when fully fit. However there doesn’t seem to be many options elsewhere in the team. His other natural position at stand off is completely sewn up by the ever-improving George Williams, who should be a shoe-in for the role for club and country for the next 10 years such is his all round quality. With Joe Burgess also a certain starter, playing Tomkins on the wing, or at full-back and pushing Escare to the wing would be very harsh on Lewis Tierney, who has also improved beyond measure the last two seasons, from last choice cover for the back line to an excellent finisher with good all round wing play.
With Dom Manfredi to hopefully return in August, and Tomkins declining pace, a position on the wing seems very unlikely.
No doubt there will be injuries, and Wane will want to rest the likes of Leuluai, Williams and Escare over the course of the season to keep them fresh for the Super 8s and beyond. It is unlikely, though that Sam will be happy with being a bit part player covering only injuries and rotation. Is it comprehensible, then, that Sam’s time at the club could be at an end? It seems tragic to think such a thing may be possible. One of the most entertaining players of the Super League era, Sam burst onto the scene only thanks to an injury to Tim Smith, but soon lit up the pitch with his elusive running, lightening pace and brazen attitude towards opposition players and fans.
Every player has a shelf life, though, and as sad as it will be, maybe Sam’s is fast approaching. We can only hope he proves the doubters wrong.
I’ll have to be honest and say that I wasn’t expecting such a convincing result by the Warriors against the winless Warrington Wolves last week. Before the game, especially when the Wigan back-five was announced with Forsyth, Marshall and Isa included, I genuinely thought this would be a struggle. But Shaun Wane was confident and backed his team to the hilt and was proven right.
A lot has been said about Liam Marshall and rightly so. His performance and story is stuff of fairy tales if you get chance have a look at the video Wigan TV produced about it. The only downside came with the reports of trouble towards the end of the game. There is no place in rugby league for these idiots and hopefully the true fans will name and shame them as they do nothing but give the game a bad name.
It’s a pretty exciting time to be a Warriors fan at the moment, with the side five games unbeaten despite the injuries mounting up, and these don’t seem to be affecting the team’s play the way the injuries did in 2016. There is that same steely defence but the attacking flair hasn’t been dulled at all.
I guess there could be a few reasons for this, Sam Powell (who incidentally stretched his run of consecutive Super League games to 50) has found his groove and although he doesn’t have the same style as Micky Mac he’s going to be difficult to shift when the latter finally returns to fitness.
Morgan Escare has come in and been a standout this season, a few were worried about his defence, but Wigan seem to stifle the majority of threats before they get to the last line of defence.
But for me the return of Thomas Leuluai has been a masterstroke, he just seems to know what to play and when and complements George Williams superbly.
Wigan and Castleford remain unbeaten at the top of the table after Cas scored an impressive win at Widnes and seem to be this season’s media darlings, taking over from Hull of 2016. It certainly sets up an interesting clash in April, especially given the needle between Shaun Wane and Daryl Powell at present. Hopefully both sides will remain unbeaten and the sides will produce a game befitting of the hype it will undoubtedly bring.
Next weekend sees a rarity for the Warriors with a 3pm Sunday game. The club have marketed it as a family fun day and it will be interesting to see what numbers turn up for the game as Huddersfield don’t usually bring a huge number of fans with them. If it’s a success it may give the Warriors food for thought with regards to home game scheduling, particularly with the debacle over the Widnes game scheduling as it would alleviate a lot of the issues of playing before a Wigan Athletic game. It was also interesting to note Hull City’s manager publicly slamming their groundshare arrangement with Hull FC. I feel this could run and run and I am sure other clubs in similar agreements will be watching developments with interest.