Talking RL: What will be forgetten from a final to remember

In years to come, anyone looking at Wigan's Grand Final line-up on Wikipedia or YouTube will say, '˜Not a bad team, that'.

Thursday, 13th October 2016, 1:54 pm
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 6:26 pm
The coaching staff hug Shaun Wane after the full-time whistle

And they’d be right.

But they won’t know from the team-list or the highlights that the side which got to Old Trafford was missing Sean O’Loughlin and Ben Flower, and had two recent academy-graduates in their ranks.

They won’t know that O’Loughlin hadn’t played and barely trained in more than two months.

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Two. Months.

They won’t see the wealth of talent - and chunk of the salary cap - which watched the game from the stands, in suits.

“We had a million quid on crutches,” quipped Shaun Wane.

And, the coach says, the biggest hindrance hasn’t been with the number of absentees but the number of training sessions missed by those who have played.

The fact they made it to a top-two finish, against a backdrop of outside sniping, was remarkable.

The fact they reached a fourth successive Grand Final was incredible.

And the fact they won the thing, with such a spirited display... brilliant.

Because, as I’ve pointed out before, Wigan have no right to win silverware.

I know fans demand it and chairman Ian Lenagan sets a target of a trophy every other year.

But we can’t have both a more competitive Super League and a dominant side – it just doesn’t work that way. And when Hull FC, Warrington, St Helens, Catalans, Leeds, Huddersfield and others are spending as much on players’ salaries, it makes victory all the sweeter.

It should be savoured. It should be celebrated.

Wigan are the 2016 champions!

In the days before and minutes after the Grand Final, it was mentioned more than once... the desire to ‘prove critics wrong’.

No-one would suggest Wigan haven’t deserved criticism during spells this season.

They have. Of course they have.

The players and Shaun Wane were huge critics of their attack - it was the coach who described their form at being “five out of 10”.

Many fans agreed.

And most of them understood the mitigating factors - the disruptions, the injuries, the inexperience... not to mention the usual lulls which come in campaigns.

But some of the comments crossed the line from reasoned criticism and healthy debate into personal attacks.

As Friends’ Joey Tribbiani said: “You’re so far over the line... the line is a dot to you!”

Some of it was nasty, most of it on social media.

And it was that type of criticism which, I imagine, annoyed those involved the most.

Away from Wigan, what about the season as a whole?

It has certainly been an enjoyable and exciting finish, what with the Disney-scripted Million Pound Game, an epic Challenge Cup Final, enjoyable play-offs semis and a great Grand Final.

There were three different winners of the three major trophies - Hull FC, Warrington and Wigan - with St Helens hanging onto the coat-tails.

Leeds and Huddersfield slipped down the pile, which freshened up the ladder and gave credence to the theory it’s a much more competitive league than in past years.

Take away what was at stake, and Wigan’s comeback at Warrington was my favourite match.

But generally, the quality seemed to drop.

There were spells which just seemed to drag, like the competition needed some - for want of a better word - ‘oomph’.

Sure, there were some good games.

I remember Salford and Warrington playing a thriller, I loved most of the Magic Weekend – Jacob Miller’s stunning drop-goal win against Catalans – and Castleford were generally good value to watch - particularly free-scoring winger Denny Solomona.

Catalans were a huge disappointment, once again, even if their shortcomings were masked by the tumbling fortunes of Leeds and Huddersfield.

I don’t share the view that the Super 8s system is entirely to blame, because a poor game is a poor game under any structure. And I don’t look back on past formats with rose-tinted glasses... they, too, had their flaws.

The news this week of a new title sponsor - probably BetFred - is welcomed, and the appointment of Roger Draper (a Wiganer, no less) to a top role with Super League offers encouragement for next season.

Journalists are easy targets.

Only this week, Salford owner Marwan Koukash took to Twitter to say: “It is amusing to read stories linking our players with other clubs but also shows that there are some idiots pretending to be journalists.”

I don’t know who he is referring to or what was written. Marwan may have a point.

Some people do write garbage.


Not all ‘paper talk’ is wrong, and not everything coming from officials is right.

I remember Marwan telling this paper he had “absolutely no interest” in signing Gareth Hock. Not long later, he was a Salford player.

This year, the New Zealand Warriors denied Thomas Leuluai may be released early to return to Wigan.

And Matty Smith’s move to St Helens would only have come as a shock to any fan who really believed Keiron Cunningham when he said the halfback “isn’t on our radar”.

My media colleague Steve Mascord pointed this one out as something that would surely only happen in rugby league - the coach of France has been named in Spain’s international squad!

Aurelien Cologni will succeed Richard Agar as coach of the French and will lock horns with super-coach Wayne Bennett next week... before potentially playing in Spain’s World Cup qualifiers.

John Bateman was Wigan’s best player this season.

Dom Manfredi, Anthony Gelling and George Williams all had moments, but Bateman shone the brightest.

That said, I was so pleased to see Sam Powell take the Players’ Player of the Year award at the club’s end-of-season dinner.

He is the only player to figure in all 36 games and he played more minutes, and made far more tackles, than he was ever expected to, due to Micky McIlorum’s awful injury in February.

Powell may have lacked some of the craft and subtleties you would expect of a halfback playing out of position, but he more than made amends with graft and endeavour.

I said earlier this week that Sean O’Loughlin’s return typified Wigan’s campaign - one of battling against the odds, playing without proper preparation - but Powell embodied that spirit better than anyone.

England haven’t yet played a game under Wayne Bennett’s watch, but he’s already impressed me.

It’s hard to argue with his squad.

Sure, it only featured two wingers, and both were involved in the Qualifiers (though Huddersfield’s Jermaine McGillvary and Leeds’ Ryan Hall are proven operators).

But he’s picked a well-balanced squad loaded with talent, and I particularly welcome his decision not to call up any Australians who qualified through ancestry, as he had previously hinted.

And speaking to the media on Tuesday via a Skype call, ahead of his arrival this week, it was hard not to be impressed by his frank views.

Explaining his decision to overlook Man of Steel Danny Houghton, he said: “It doesn’t take away from his wonderful achievement in winning Man of Steel I didn’t know I was supposed to pick him because of that.”

His willingness to bring his Brisbane side over for the World Club Series is refreshing, given most of the other top NRL sides are refusing, and Bennett wants England to play mid-season when Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Fiji have internationals.

So far, so commonsense.

And when he was asked whether players in both Super League and the NRL play too many games, he had a great response:

“But everyone gets well paid today, don’t forget,” he said. “You can’t get paid that level of money and have a 16-round season, it just wouldn’t happen.”

Amen to that.