Leuluai up for huge challenge ahead
If you look at Wigan's last two title wins there is a moot point, if not a theme.
In 2013 they lost five of their last six regular season games, only to recover and win the title.
Last season, they lost their last four regular season games, only to recover and win the title.
This year hasn’t seen a blip as such, but a campaign riddled with inconsistency down to a number of causes depending on who you ask, but certainly not helped by a near-season long injury crisis. Crisis, for once, being the right word.
That has left Wigan in eighth spot ahead of tonight’s game, the last before the season splits into the Super 8s phase, five points adrift of the top four spot they need to make the play-offs. It’s certainly going to register as a bigger achievement than the last two if Wigan do reach October’s Old Trafford Grand Final.
Talk about challenges though, and Tommy Leuluai appears confident the champions can make the cut.
“I know it’s a hard effort, but we’re only what? Five points behind,” he said.
“We’ll not be too far off it but we’ve certainly got some work to do.”
Following a convincing win over Catalans Dragons in Perpignan two weeks ago a resurgent Warriors were on a run of four games without a loss in Super League and the Challenge Cup, and looked to be on the up.
But a disappointing performance against Warrington last week cast a new worry over their play-off chances, though Leuluai insists it can still be done.
“Watching the game back on Sky, they’re talking, ‘Need to win to make the top-four’. And I’m thinking, there are nine games to go, 18 points... against teams up there,” he explained.
“We were clunky with the ball (against Warrington) and gave away too many penalties.
“I thought we’d turned the corner with the Catalans performance, and that was a step back.”
It is an area Warriors will have to fix quickly against second-placed Leeds, who have won their last three games, though they arrive at the DW Stadium tonight missing a host of stars.
England winger Ryan Hall (concussion) is one of 13 players missing from the Leeds side due to injury, a list which includes Kallum Watkins, Stevie Ward, Adam Cuthbertson, Brett Ferres, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Liam Sutcliffe and Keith Galloway.
Teenagers Harry Newman, Harvey Whiteley and Alex Sutcliffe may make debuts.
But Leuluai expects them to still be a tough opponent.
“Leeds have been playing well, a lot of good individuals. They don’t really rely on structure, it’s more a case of, ‘Get the ball to Watkins’, ‘Get the ball to the back rowers’,” he said. “They’re always big games, and I’m looking forward to it. To get back to where we want to be, and because it should be great atmosphere Friday.”
Leuluai, meanwhile, has appeared to cast doubts on whether he will see out his playing contract before he takes a role on Wigan’s coaching staff.
The Kiwi halfback, who only recently turned 32, returned to the club last season after four years in the NRL.
Wigan expected him to play for “a few years” before becoming one of Shaun Wane’s assistants.
Asked whether he will play on next season, he said: “We’ll see, we’ll see. I’ve not talked to Rads (rugby director Kris Radlinski) about it.” But he then went on to suggest he will play in 2018.
“I’ve got another year at least, and then we’ll have a chat,” he said. “When you’re at this age and been at a club so long, they know I’m not going to take the mick, and they won’t take it out of me.
“Physically I feel alright, which is incredible considering the number of games I’ve played!
“It’s just getting up for the game. I’ll see how I go.”
Jake Shorrocks, sidelined by a season-ending knee injury, is seen by many as Leuluai’s successor after being handed a long-term deal by the club last December.