The 18th man column: '˜There has to be a scapegoat'
Our 18th man columnists discuss returning home, drawing, and criticism...
Let’s forget about Friday and hope it was a point gained on the top-four, rather than another point lost. I recently worked out prospective results between now and the end of the season and had Wigan being in the top-four by the time the play-off semi-finals take place – I also had them in there by four points. Let’s make that three points now after Friday – that perhaps highlights just how little room Wigan have for error.
The next game against Widnes is yet again, a must-win game. Every game has become that for Wigan and saying that June/May time when the Super League trophy is handed out in October isn’t great, but this is Wigan – nothing is straight forward and that’s the way we like it (sometimes).
This Sunday, Wigan play only their second game at the DW since May 5 and three home games in their last four regular league games could be vital to our chances of collecting the much-needed eight points. With Wigan extremely likely to miss out on the top-four before the Super 8’s split, Wigan have six homes games left this year and we need to make the DW a fortress for that period.
With nearly the full salary cap back on the field, it’s time to press ahead and make ground on the top-four as any more slip ups in the regular season and we could have a few lame duck months around the back end of the season with nothing to play for.
Fail to win against Widnes and it’s not over, but the Fat Lady will be warming her vocal cords, and without trying to make anyone nervous, Wigan haven’t beaten Widnes at the DW Stadium since July 2015. A must-win game and must attend game for Wigan fans, the team need us now, more than ever.
Defence in rugby league begins in the changing rooms.
The decision is almost in the subconscious that no matter what, you will go for every ball, chase every tackle in your area, do whatever it takes to stop the breach. Now don’t get me wrong, I think the Wigan lads put together a really good effort against a desperate Huddersfield side and ran themselves silly – but effort is not the same as having made that promise to yourself before you put your boots on.
A very fine line is drawn which I would suggest is the difference between a player seeing a play and deciding to chase it down, or without realising it, the player is already running to diffuse it.
At this level of sport, it can be these tiny differences between a win or a draw and we seemed a little slow sometimes in making the decision to chase or reset our defence to cope with what are ultimately cheap tries against us. Much of this can come down to fatigue both physical and mental and will need much care to balance the energy levels as we come towards the end of the regular season.
Our once proud claim that our defence was second to none is now far from the truth and although we are getting our big guns back in the team, it will take a few weeks for them to get back up to speed. But we need some more points on the table if we are to challenge for the top four and the play-offs this year. I suppose I feel that we need to rediscover our enthusiasm for the rough stuff which epitomises the ‘train hard, play easy’ adage.
On the up side, our attack is coming together now that we have some cohesion in the back line. The halves are looking more comfortable in their roles together and Sam Tomkins is showing signs of the confident flair that has endeared him to the Wigan faithful. With luck, we can stay injury-free for a while and begin to get some semblance of normality in this powerful squad.
Incredibly, the Warriors and Huddersfield could not be separated for the second time this season, as they battled out an intense and edgy 19-19 draw at the John Smith’s Stadium, both sides unable to land a killer blow after George Williams levelled the scores with a late drop goal.
Wigan were desperate not to lose this game, and are desperately looking to gain some form before the league splits into the Super 8’s and Qualifiers.
Earlier on in the night with Wigan leading, Saints and Hull both losing, it looked as though it was going to be a good night for the Warriors but a dramatic turnaround at Saints and an emphatic second half from Hull meant the top-four becomes increasingly more unlikely with each point dropped.
I was slightly surprised at some of the criticism following this game, which was heightened with the news that Matty Smith scored a one-pointer to grab the Saints a victory against Salford. Wigan, on the whole, haven’t been playing well for a couple of months now but when the season kicked-off and Wigan were unbeaten including the World Club Challenge win, there were no whispers of discontent. All of a sudden, there’s criticism flying in about the halfbacks which begs the question, weren’t these same fans slating Matty Smith last year for being boring and predictable and not taking on the line?
I just think there always has to be a scapegoat and at the moment it’s (unfairly in my opinion) Tommy Leuluai.
Of course, there is always the Challenge Cup semi against Salford next month to look forward to, and this has to be Wigan’s best chance of silverware this season, but the priority has to be regaining some form as key players get back to having full match fitness and if the performances improve, particularly in defence, then the results should follow.
This week sees the Warriors take on Widnes at the DW after the reversal of the fixture earlier on the season.
It was interesting to see the RFL not really punish Wigan for their part in the fiasco, merely ordering them to pay £2,000 costs, a slight slap on the wrists but the big thing is the RFL will be setting up a working group to assist those clubs in ground-share agreements, Wigan, Hull, Huddersfield, to try and mitigate such occurrences going forward.
Hopefully the Warriors can finally get a league win in what is yet again being described as a must-win game. It’s looking like Tony Clubb and Dom Manfredi will be back shortly which means that with the exception of the season-long injuries (Flower, Escare and Shorrocks) the Warriors will be pretty much at full-strength. It will be brilliant to see those two back in Cherry and White.
Speaking of injuries, it was a huge relief to see Joe Shorrocks released from hospital following a worrying incident against London Under-19s. Many feared the worst as he was stretchered off with a neck injury which was treated for 10 minutes on the pitch, but the club later confirmed that Joe was okay.
The work medical staff do at all rugby clubs is under appreciated in my opinion and here’s to a speedy and full recovery for the young back rower.
Another week goes by and another league point dropped. Eight Super League games without a win makes for pretty grim reading but I imagine most Wigan fans are feeling more positive than negative.
The return of Sam Tomkins and John Bateman among others has given reason for optimism and if we can keep our players fit from now on there’s every chance we can rise up the table.
Optimism must make way for realism, though. We are currently seven points off the fourth place required to make the semi finals, with our points difference making it more like eight points in practical terms. With the squad we now have available, on paper every game we play looks realistically winnable, even if an unbeaten run to the end of the season is very unlikely.
It’s also true that all the teams above us will play each other at least once over the next 11 weeks, but eight points is quite a gap to make up.
Whilst Shaun Wane and the players will never give up on making the top four, maybe it would be better to put all our eggs into the Challenge Cup basket, seemingly a much more realistic chance of taking home silverware this season. I think most fans would have happily taken Salford given the choice of semi-final opponents.
That’s not to take them lightly as they have been in sensational form this season, but they have lost their last three games in Super League and I would fancy our chances in the high pressure cauldron of a semi-final.
Personally I would be looking at resting some of our more important players such as O’Loughlin with the semi final in mind.
While the Grand Final is the pinnacle of the club rugby calendar in terms of achievement, the Challenge Cup final has always, for me, been the better day out.
Whether it’s the further distance travelled, the grander stadium or the history of Wigan and the cup, if I could pick one trophy to win purely from a spectator point of view it would be the Cup every time. Given we’re just two matches from lifting the trophy it seems a far better bet than hoping we can sneak up the table far enough to earn an away semi final at a seemingly rampant Castleford.
If someone could offer me the chance to take on Leeds or Hull at Wembley right now I would bite their hand off. Fortunately for everyone supporting the club, Shaun Wane will be doing his best to ensure we end up with both trophies, if he was as cautious as me we probably wouldn’t have won the Grand Final last year. In Wane we trust!
It’s a hard life following Wigan Warriors!
After the jubilation of our Challenge Cup win against Warrington, we were brought right back down to earth with another damaging result in the league.
For the last four or five games, I’ve been saying the same thing – this is the one, this is the game that kick-starts our season again.
However, yet again, we found a way to go one step forward – and two steps back.
I’m not going to say that our play-off chances are over, but we’ve made it a whole lot harder this past week.
Amazingly, we lost no ground on the top four, but we didn’t gain any either, which is our main aim for the remainder of the season.
I thought we were poor against Huddersfield, some looked like they were still feeling it from the Warrington game.
We lost it in that opening 25 minutes. To go 13-0 down against a side who wasn’t playing that well on the night, just wasn’t good enough.
We fought back well, and looked to have taken control, but again, we let a lead slip and ultimately dropped more points in the league.
I feel like from now until the end of the season, every Wigan fan will be saying the same thing – this is a must-win game.
We’ve got Widnes away next – oh wait, no sorry, it’s at home, and yes, I’m going to say it. It’s a must-win game for Wigan Warriors.
So, we’re seven points off fourth spot, with four games to go before the split. We just have to win all four of those games, it’s as simple as that.
If we can win all four, and manage to be about three or four points off fourth going into the Super-8s, I’d really fancy our chances of making the play-offs.
However, we can’t think too far ahead, we just need to take it one game at a time, and put all our focus on winning that one game each week.
Us as fans need to do our part too. We’ve been great all season, but this is crunch time now, and they need us more than ever. Let’s get down to the DW on Sunday and get behind the lads. We need to treat each and every game now, as a Cup Final.
The 19-19 draw against Huddersfield was the first time we have drawn both home and away fixtures against the same opposition in a season since Hull in 2004 and before that Halifax in 1985/6. The draw almost certainly killed our hopes of getting in the top four too, as it stands now we’re in eighth place just ahead of Warrington.
With only four games remaining against Widnes, Catalans, Warrington and Leeds we play three of the four teams below us fighting to stay out of the middle eights. They’re basically in a relegation fight as none of them will want to risk being relegated, it will be highly embarrassing too for any of the big teams who find themselves in the middle eights like Leeds did last year.
With us in eighth we are prime targets for those teams below us whom we will have to face in the next few weeks. The time for error-strewn displays and poor disciple is over, like it or not there’s no way we can finish in the middle eights.
With these fixtures in mind we also have the Challenge Cup so it’s going to be tough but I’ve no doubt the boys can do it.
This week there’s a good chance of Tony Clubb, Tautai and Gelling returning. The return of the front rowers will add much needed muscle in the middle of the pitch.
Over the last few years we’ve dipped our hand into the transfer market around this time of year (last year we signed Frank-Paul) and if it was up to me I’d take a punt on another prop. I think all we lack in the forwards is a big, tall, hardworking prop much in the mould of Andy Coley, Chris Hill or Terry O’Connor. I think all of our props are more impact props and I think that’s what we’re missing. As most of the players are coming back from injury if we were to strengthen, for me, it would be a workhorse prop.
Here’s to the Widnes game, our final four league games of the season. Start now and we could rescue the season, especially if we win the Challenge Cup, but not at the expense of finishing in the middle eights and fighting relegation - 2006 is still fresh in the memory.