Wigan Warriors: Where did it go wrong this season?
As the dust settles on another campaign, Phil Wilkinson reflects on the season and looks at where it went wrong...
How will Wigan’s 2021 be remembered?
As another one that got away. Having gone so agonisingly close to claiming a title last year, there was plenty of optimism they could take another step this year.
The retention of Bevan French, as well as the recruitment of John Bateman and Jai Field, raised hopes of success.
Bateman even boasted before the season that Wigan would win the Grand Final.
By any measure, it was a disappointing, frustrating and – for large spells – boring campaign. They were rarely troubled by the lesser sides but, similarly, they rarely troubled the big-guns.
What went wrong?
Where to start? How about at the start. And the fact that before the season began, marquee prop George Burgess departed.
Despite freeing up some cash under the salary cap, he wasn’t replaced. In mitigation, the club – like others – are recovering from the financial whack of the Covid-pandemic. But the decision not to sign a dominant prop grew more annoying each time Wigan lacked a physical presence and penetration.
To the backs, and at the start of the year, Lam was wondering – on the record – how he would accommodate them all in his side, given livewire Field had been added without any spaces opening up.
But the Aussie suffered a serious hamstring injury during his debut, barely to figure again, while French was also sidelined by a similar problem. Winger Dom Manfredi was forced into retirement.
The loss of French – so outstanding in 2020 – was pivotal.
While Wigan have a quality full-back replacement in Zak Hardaker, his strengths are in defence, strong carries and leadership; Lam likes his full-backs to operate as an extra half, chiming into the attacking line and finishing attacks with slick passes or sharp footwork, like French. A lack of consistency of the spine also didn’t help their cause, nor did the fact that they played more games than their opponents, denying them time on the training pitch. But with the quality Wigan had, fans were right to expect better displays. Their failure to conjure any threats was painful to watch.
The side which lost 8-0 to Leeds featured the likes of Hardaker, Hastings, Gildart, Marshall, Farrell and Bateman. Some players will reflect on their own contributions and admit their form wasn’t good enough.
Was it all bad?
No. There were some positives, not least the emergence of some exciting young players.
Forward Kai Pearce-Paul has an incredible ability to offload, and he chooses his passes smartly, while centre Sam Halsall earned the nickname ‘The Bank’ for his safety under the high ball while operating as an emergency winger. Joe Shorrocks and Harry Smith were among three who were ever-present for Wigan this year – whether that fact accelerated or slowed their development is an argument for another day.
Elsewhere, there were some notable wins, not least the three leading into the play-offs – against Hull FC, Castleford and Catalans – and earlier in the campaign, a heavily-depleted side scrapped an impressive win at Huddersfield. Their seven-game winning run also included a dramatic escape at Salford in a 17-16 win.
But by and large it certainly wasn’t a 'highlights reel' kind of year.
Who was the best player?
Liam Farrell, probably. Others may make an argument for Jackson Hastings.
Honourable mentions, too, to those young forwards who gave their all – top-tackler Shorrocks, Ollie Partington – as well as to Jake Bibby, who played wing and centre, left and right side.
Where do they go from here?
Many remember Wigan’s flirt with relegation in 2006 but the period between 2002, when they won the Challenge Cup, and their next major trophy – the 2010 Grand Final – wasn’t all bad.
When Ian Lenagan bought the club in 2007 they were, and stayed for a while, a semi-final side. A team good enough to make the play-offs, but not trouble the better teams when they got there.
It may be alarmingly premature to suggest Wigan are in danger of slipping back to that point, particularly as they won the League Leaders’ Shield in 2020. But their last major trophy was 2018, while Wigan won only one of their matches against the top-three this year; a fourth-placed finish was a fair reflection of the gap between them.
They need to prove they are capable of matching St Helens and rising stars Catalans, and the longer they go without Cup and Grand Final success, the more the pressure will be ratcheted up. N Lenagan and executive director Kris Radlinski will be hoping their actions to address Wigan’s shortfalls will pay off.
Winger Abbas Miski is joining from Championship side London, ex-NRL props Kaide Ellis and Patrick Mago add a physical presence and experience to the front-row, and towering centre Iain Thornley is returning from Leigh – though the last of those arrivals has, strangely, yet to be officially confirmed (as has Joe Bullock’s move to Warrington).
Wigan’s coaching structure has not been finalised, though assistant Matty Peet is the frontrunner to take charge in a structure which includes England, and ex-Warriors, coach Shaun Wane in a part-time role.
And they remain on the look out for a halfback for 2022, even though they have Field and Smith on board and Thomas Leuluai could still yet play on.
Will those changes be enough to help them progress? We’ll have to wait and see.