Talking RL: A Cup tie with six appeal
And to think, not long ago, some people were asking whether Sam Tomkins would get back into the Wigan side.
How things change.
Then, Wigan were cruising along nicely, with memories of their World Club success still fresh and livewire Morgan Escare adding the, erm, French polish to some impressive wins.
Now, their only victory in the last eight weeks was against part-timers Swinton, they are leaking an alarming number of points, and they have just been beaten at Leigh.
On the scale of predictions about Wigan’s Super League campaign - from the doom-mongers, to the hopeful, to those who think Wigan are destined for a mid-table spot, too good for the bottom-four and too much ground to make up to get into the top-four - it’s interesting to note what the shrewdest observers think. The bookmakers.
They still have Wigan as third favourite to win the Grand Final.
Perhaps they, too, think some of the sides ‘up there’ will tail off, recognise the quality of the players returning and appreciate the value of past experience.
Either way, it’s going to be an intriguing run-in.
Wigan’s focus switches to the Challenge Cup on Saturday for a game which needs no hype.
Both sides are under-pressure, both have lost their four matches since they met at the Magic Weekend.
Wigan have been in better-form - at least they’re scoring points - and they have the considerable upper-hand of welcoming back up to six of his best.
Sam Tomkins, John Bateman, Sean O’Loughlin, Liam Farrell. All England internationals.
And Anthony Gelling and Sam Powell have proved what big players they are.
To have them back, just a week after Oliver Gildart returned – and how classy was he against Leigh? – is a huge boost. Not only do they bring quality and big-game experience, but they should help swell the confidence of their team-mates after a miserable run of results.
I can’t wait to see Tomkins back in a Wigan shirt.
He may be a little under-done and I’ve already said he may not have the same grace and pace, certainly not straight away, but what I always liked most about him was his competitiveness.
And with frontline players returning, it gives Wane the chance to leave out over-exposed youngsters – and some under-performing senior players.
But at the risk of repeating last week’s view, Wigan just need a win.
Just one. Just to feel the euphoria, to see their fans smiling, to hear their own winning song in the dressing room afterwards.
Shaun Wane labelled Wigan’s line-defence against Leigh as unacceptable.
And it was.
To leak three tries in 10 minutes, all from dummy-half darts, was embarrassing.
But it’s too sweeping to put it all down to their tackle technique, organisation and attitude.
Because too many times, Wigan ended their sets poorly. Thomas Leuluai’s kicks, particularly, were easily dealt with by Leigh, who then started too many of their sets in a good position.
And while Wigan and Leigh made a near-identical number of carries and metres during the game, the Warriors made twice as many errors, and conceded nearly twice as many penalties.
So yes, Wigan were poor defending their line, and they need to look at it.
But they need to look at why Leigh got down there so often, too.
If you’re a Wigan fan not quite sure whether you’re looking up, or over your shoulder – and it’s hard when your head and heart are disagreeing – I’ve devised a simple test.
Just ask yourself this: Who do you want to win tomorrow’s Super League game between Huddersfield and St Helens?
If Saints – one point and one place ahead – win, they move three points clear and give the Warriors even more ground to make up.
But if Huddersfield win, they’ll nudge Shaun Wane’s men back a spot, to eighth – a week ahead of an intriguing clash between the two.
So, back to the question: Who you going for, Saints or Huddersfield?
Super League chiefs have met this week to discuss the format of the competition.
Roger Draper, the executive director, has previously said the Super-8s will continue next year – possibly with some minor tweaks – with any major changes likely to be introduced for 2019.
I hope the idea of awarding the league leaders’ shield after round 23, and resetting the points, is laughed out the room.
But should they overhaul the structure again? Tough one.
I dare say this season wouldn’t have been as interesting without the Super-8s element. And part of me wants to say ‘stop meddling’ – I can’t think of other sports which tinker with the format quite as much.
But with the rise of Toulouse and, a tier below, Toronto, and with London and Hull KR doing well, I see an argument to expand the competition back to 14 teams. If not next year, then in 2019.
That way, we could revert to a straight-forward season in which teams play each other twice, possibly with a four, five or six-team play-offs which gives greater reward to finishing top.
Of course, if you’re going to decide the champions by a play-offs, there’s no real need to make sure everyone only plays each other twice.
But if you’re going to have straight-forward, one-up, one-down relegation – which I’d welcome – it needs to be fair. Which would mean either scrapping the Magic Weekend, changing it into a Nines event, or having the annual on-the-road event as a ‘home’ fixture for six of the clubs, alternated each year.
I can’t say I’m bothered about Nines, but some people are: that’s why it’s part of the international programme in the next few years.
And expanding the top flight to would also solve one of the problems of this current campaign.
When Super League was trimmed back to 12 clubs, it meant more games between the big guns.
And the idea sounded great.
But on Saturday, Wigan face Warrington for the third time this season.
They play again next month.
Last season, Wigan played Hull FC five times.
It’s too much.
Making the big games more scarce will make them bigger and better.
A day after learning Euston station will be closed on Challenge Cup Final weekend – adding a couple hours and more stops to the journey of any north west fans travelling by rail – the Premier League fixtures were published.
Which revealed Spurs – playing their games at Wembley next season – are at home on Saturday August 26.
But fear not.
The Premier League high-flyers tweeted: “Please note: Burnley (H) Aug 26 is the same day as the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final and will need to be rescheduled.”
A football match being rescheduled to accommodate a rugby league game?
It’ll never take on...