Wigan Warriors v Catalans Dragons preview: Old friends won't be holding back
Shaun Wane has no doubt which Catalans player is most likely to make in impact when they meet his Wigan Warriors tonight.
At the stadium where he developed his uncompromising, aggressive and upfront style of play, and in front of the fans who still adore him, Michael McIlorum will be fired-up for this one.
There will of course be handshakes and McIlorum will have a lot of catching up to do with old mates, he is even visiting Wane’s home while back in Wigan.
But that will wait until after the game. Wane is sure the only focus McIlorum will have beforehand will be the job he has to do.
“I know he can be very, very competitive, he’s a very physical player and no doubt he’ll want to put a stamp of this game,” warned Wane, who admits he is still affected by the hooker’s departure from Warriors in early January.
“I know how he plays, he was probably the toughest decision I’ve ever made while I’ve been a professional coach, losing him to Catalans and having that conversation with him,” Wane added.
“I love him to pieces, he’s my mate and it still haunts me now that chat we had and him realising he had to go.
“But it was best for him. His career has kicked on again, he’s playing really, really well, he’s got a good lifestyle in the south of France and I’m really pleased.
“He’s over this weekend, and we’re still good friends.”
Catalans are unbeaten in their last five games, and secured their Super League status for 2019 with a comfortable 44-10 win over Salford.
But with next weekend’s Challenge Cup semi-final against St Helens on the horizon, and a second appearance at Wembley following their route to the final in 2007, Steve McNamara has shown his hand in where his priorities lie.
He will rest David Mead, Rémi Casty, Ben Garcia, Mika Simon, former Warrior Lewis Tierney, Benjamin Jullien and playmaker Josh Drinkwater.
This hands another former Warrior in Iain Thornley a chance to impress against his former club, while Lucas Albert, Antoni Maria, Alrix Da Costa, Lambert Belmas, Ugo Perez and Mickael Goudemand also come into the squad.
And it would make sense. At just 80 minutes away from Wembley and their Super League status confirmed, the Challenge Cup is by far the Dragons’ best shot at silverware – even against runaway league leaders St Helens.
But that’s of no concern to Wane and Wigan.
Finishing in second place will give them an extra home game in the Super 8s, and having just lost once at home all season, with six defeats away, the coach admitted the extra home game is ‘vital’ to their play-off chances.
“It’s huge to us,” he said.
“We were unbeaten there until St Helens took it off us. Our form at home has been good and has been for many years.
“We’re tough to beat, so having that home draw is vital.”
Warriors are still missing Sean O’Loughlin, George Williams and Ryan Sutton, who are all expected to make their returns in the Super 8s, while long-term absentees Liam Farrell, Oliver Gildart, Dom Manfredi and Joe Burgess are also forced to watch from the sidelines as Wigan’s injury problems refuse to let-up just yet.