Who stays? Who goes? Wigan Warriors' situation with off-contract stars
The focus may be on restart this season, but clubs are already starting to plan for 2021.
Morgan Escare was today released from Wigan with months still remaining on his deal.
And, as previously reported on Wigantoday, Ben Flower is set to secure a move to Toronto Wolfpack for next season, ending a nine-year association with the Warriors.
The Super League newcomers targeted Flower as one of several stars who could help them progress next season – in the top-flight, if relegation is scrapped as expected.
Flower has given Wigan good service since his arrival from Celtic Crusaders in 2012, winning three Grand Finals and a World Club Challenge. But the Warriors are well stocked for props and have a clutch of promising young forwards emerging through the ranks.
With his move to Toronto set to be tied up, and Escare departing early, it raises questions about what Wigan’s other off-contract players will do next year.
Of those, O’Loughlin has already stated he plans to retire to take up a coaching role with his hometown club.
But with this season halted – and possibly shortened, when it resumes – it has raised questions whether he may defer his retirement and play on in 2021.
Kiwi halfback Leuluai is another who has a deal in place to join Wigan’s coaching staff when he quits playing. He is nearing the end of a glittering playing career – he turns 35 this month – but there is an appeal of seeing him play on, particularly if Hastings departs at the end of this season.
Young half Harry Smith is progressing well but, if Hastings leaves, Leuluai’s presence would provide a steadying influence.
That scenario, though, is uncertain. Current Steve Prescott Man of Steel Hastings is under contract with Wigan for next year but has a clause allowing him to leave for free at the end of his year to return to the NRL.
League Express today reported New Zealand Warriors want him on board for next year, though the 24-year-old suggested he was unaware of any interest when he tweeted: "One thing I’ve always found mad about the life we live, is journalists always seem to know more about you than you yourself."
He has previously been linked with a move to rugby union with either Gloucester or Harlequins.
Gildart also has a release-clause in his deal allowing him to move to the NRL – though only if a set transfer fee is paid.
Canberra paid six-figures to secure John Bateman and George Williams from Wigan, and going further back New Zealand Warriors forked out big money on Sam Tomkins, but transfer fees remain rare in rugby league.
And given the financial climate, the England centre may stay on at his hometown club next year before testing himself Down Under.
His old school friend, Joe Burgess, has already tried his hand in the NRL.
He left Wigan at the end of 2015 for Sydney Roosters and, after struggling for game-time, switched to Michael Maguire’s Souths, where he enjoyed a much better run before returning to his hometown club.
What happens next with Burgess is unclear. Just before the lockdown, he had been squeezed out of the team because of Dom Manfredi’s return from injury, with Liam Marshall taking the other wing spot. But Burgess is too good not to be playing – on his day, he is a potent attacking force.
Wigan used to be well stocked for quality wingers but - having let Tom Davies join Catalans in the winter, and with no youngsters genuinely pushing for a spot at present - there is an attraction to retaining Burgess.
His presence would not only dial up competition, with three wingers jostling for two spots, but also provide top-line cover in case Marshall or Manfredi are injured.
But the 25-year-old may want the guaranteed game-time he would no doubt secure elsewhere, or fancy another crack at the NRL – something he has always been open to trying.
Escare's exit was no surprise. He found opportunities limited when Zak Hardaker replaced Sam Tomkins last year and the recruitment of Bevan French effectively ended any chances of a return to the side, though he has the attacking flair to give good service to his next club - possibly Salford.
French prop Romain Navarrete is under contract until the end of 2021, but it would be no surprise if he departed early. He slid down the pecking order last year and is currently on a season-long loan with Wakefield.