Highs and lows of Warriors' turbulent season
Wigan won the World Club, reached Wembley but missed out on the top-four... it's certainly been a rollercoaster campaign for Shaun Wane's outfit. Here are some of the highs and lows of 2017...
World Club Challenge:
Wigan registered only the club’s fourth World Club title – and their first in 23 years – with an epic victory against Cronulla in February. Joe Burgess marked his return home with a hat-trick, as the Warriors delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to Super League’s credibility.
Challenge Cup run:
Sure, they lost to Hull FC in the final – and didn’t they handle the whole Tony Clubb-no try drama with dignity? – but it was a cracker of a game, and it was great to get to Wembley after four years away. And the earlier round wins at Swinton (they were so depleted, Joel Tomkins was at stand-off), the thriller at Warrington and the semi against Salford were enjoyable for their own reasons.
The emergence of Tom Davies and Liam Marshall:
These young wingers have covered themselves in glory in their breakthrough year.
Marshall hasn’t nailed down a spot but still finished second on the Super League try-scoring charts with 21 – a remarkable strike-rate. And Davies’ 309 metre gains against Catalans was one of the highest ever recorded. Throw in more youngsters breaking through – and an academy Grand Final – and the production line of talent looks as strong as ever.
Wigan won their eighth-straight Good Friday derby and then, days after Wembley, chalked up an impressive 26-16 away win which even had rival coach Justin Holbrook eulogising about the quality of Sean O’Loughlin and Sam Tomkins. Whisper it quietly, but the derby they lost was a thriller, too, only decided by Mark Percival’s late try.
The derby win at the Totally Wicked Stadium boosted their play-offs hopes which continued the following week with a victory at Hull FC, moving them up to third in the table. The home loss to Castleford in their penultimate league game left a sour taste, but until that point, Wigan had won eight of their previous 10 Super League games.
The return of Sam Tomkins:
And not just his actual return to playing; his return to form. Solid at the back and smart in attack, he also brought that niggly, tenacious, ‘Scrappy Doo’ quality which rival fans hate!
Tony Clubb’s comeback:
The cheer when Micky McIlorum returned from a year-long absence took some beating, but given the prop’s triple whammy of bad fortunes – serious neck injury, the death of his dad and needing a kidney removed – it was heart-lifting to see the big fella back on the pitch, doing what he he does best... whack people.
Morgan Escare was a surprise addition to the squad this year but he soon proved his quality, adding sparkle to their attacks, and it was a shame his season was cut short by a knee injury. It will be interesting to see how Escare and Sam Tomkins are accommodated in the same team next year.
The drama has long been forgotten but, at the time, there was a lot of uncertainty over George Williams’ future. Wigan fended off interest from the NRL to make the dangerous stand-off their second marquee player (after Sam Tomkins). Liam Farrell and Taulima Tautai also signed extensions.
Centre of attention:
Oliver Gildart has continued to flourish and should clinch Super League’s Young Player of the Year award. The classy centre linked up well with Burgess, Farrell and Williams on Wigan’s left edge. Gildart only recently turned 21 but he already has two Grand Finals, a World Club win and an appearance at Wembley on his Wikipedia entry.
Missing out on the play-offs:
For the past decade, Wigan’s last game of the season has been must-win. Admittedly, previous formats allowed five, six, even eight teams in the play-offs – rather than the current four – but after four straight Grand Final appearances, it was disappointing not to be involved in the Old Trafford race. Even if few would argue they deserved to be.
Wigan’s style was discussed last year, too, and many fans have vented their frustration over the course of this season. Wigan have shown in patches (often when they are chasing a game) they can play attractively, but not often enough to satisfy many of their supporters.
Form of some players:
Sean O’Loughlin was Wigan’s sole representative in the Dreamteam. Oliver Gildart, George Williams, Joe Burgess and Liam Farrell all polled votes and some didn’t play enough to be considered – but others weren’t even in the reckoning. Those players, some of Wigan’s most senior and, presumably, best-paid, weren’t at their best.
Over-reliance on O’Loughlin:
The stats say it all - eight Super League games without him, eight losses (their win-rate with him was near-80 per cent). And even in the games he played, the dip in performance when he was spelled was sometimes
alarming. It’s not just what he brings as a player, but his influence on those around him.
Morgan Escare started with the cone (60 per cent) and George Williams finished with it (68 per cent), and neither were among the competition’s sharp-shooters. Shaun Wane’s stance is clear; he won’t sign a sub-standard player just for their goal-kicking ability. Arguably Wigan’s best kicker, Jake Shorrocks, missed most of the year with a knee injury. Reserve centre Jack Higginson has a solid boot, too.
Leaking 50 at Leigh, failing to win at Headingley in two visits, losing to Castleford in three meetings and being nilled by Wakefield on the final day were all notable dips on the chart-graph.
And we thought last year was bad! Wane runs a ‘no excuse’ policy, but that must have been tested with so many frontline players absent. In early May, Wigan’s team featured only three players with ‘starting’ numbers – illustrating the missing personnel. Wane said a detailed review showed the injuries weren’t preventable – there wasn’t a trend – leaving fans to hope for better luck next time out.
Wigan’s eight-match run without a victory in mid-season was their worst sequence in the league since 1903. That run featured two draws and there were two Challenge Cup wins in that spell, but still, it was an unwanted piece of history to make. Wigan started the season brightly, not losing in six, but from that point they only once put a three-game winning block together – a lack of consistency which proved frustrating and costly.
It’s on, it’s off, it’s on again... but now it’s at Widnes. Wigan farcically switched their Super League game with hours notice – in the week after their epic World Club win. Ian Lenagan later revealed the RFL tried to fine Wigan £50,000 for the saga, before being ordered to pay a more modest £2,000.
At the back end of the season, this subject was repeatedly raised with Shaun Wane saying most of the tries they conceded were from kicks. Some would take it as a back-handed compliment – an acknowledgement teams struggled to break them down – but the issue continued to blight them.