The 18th Man column: 'Wigan Warriors set for the mother of all battles'
Our 18th Man columnists discuss Wigan's derby at St Helens, the play-offs structure... and reveal which Saints player they'd love to sign!
St Helens-Wigan – what are you expecting?
Sean Lawless: I am expecting a similar game to the clash between the sides in the Super 8’s last season. A game in which Wigan played the occasion much better than St Helens did. In some ways, the game feels similar in that there is the expectation on St Helens, but also the questionable doubt of whether they can perform on a big occasion. I believe it will be Wigan who are the first to book their place at the Grand Final.
Jon Lyon: The mother of all battles. Having been convincingly beaten by Saints three times this season, now is our time to shine. Saints will rightly be favourites, but the ‘bottlers’ tag will weigh heavily on their shoulders and we keep finding ways to win.
Defensively we are in outstanding shape and, although the likely absence of Sam Powell is a huge blow given his outstanding form, bringing Bevan French into the team gives us another player who can produce something from nothing.
Even if we lose, I still have faith we can win at Old Trafford, but we should be confident we can beat them this time round too. Bringing Partington back alongside Smithies and Clubb should ensure a fiery battle not for the faint-hearted.
Darren Wrudd: Oh my goodness, with a few of losses already this year I think that most will fully expect a Saints win, although we will have tried hard. Wind it in a bit I say, with the commitment to work for one another in the bravest of ways, this squad just will not lie down.
I can see our lads hoping for a week off before the Grand Final, and showing St Helens that all is not going to be laid before them. Expect fireworks, bad tempers and emotion, I really cannot wait for this one.
A lot could pivot around the hooking role and, if Sam Powell is fit, it will be good to see the match up he faces with James Roby.
Powell, the best hooker in Super League in my eyes, is massive for our cohesion and I really hope his injury does not keep him out.
Robert Kenyon: I’m predicting a Wigan wi but a Wigan v Saints final and, ultimately, I’ll whisper it too, a Wigan win.
David Bailey: Expect the unexpected. Wigan will rightly go into this game with more confidence than any of the previous meetings this season, but that sometimes bites you on the backside. I have a feeling it will either be a blow out win for Saints or Wigan will grind out a horrible ugly hard fought win.
I’m obviously hoping for the latter, and a lot will depend on how we go about replacing Sam Powell.
I’d like us to give Bourouh a game after all, the trust placed in Smithies, Byrne and the returning Partington wasn’t misplaced. Speaking of those them, Smithies with 72 tackles in 62 minutes last week! What an incredible effort for anyone, let alone an 18 year old.
Jeanette Lusher: I am expecting a game of epic proportions! A ferocious battle with no quarter given! A game that would grace any Grand Final! The Wigan lads will have to raise their game to another level and to put in an 80-minute performance to secure the victory. They will need to concentrate every second and to be ultra disciplined as we cannot afford to give away cheap yardage and possession. Our forwards will need to be on top to open the doors for our backs to do their job. The committed defence that we saw in the game against Salford particularly in the final minutes must be repeated. On the part of the match officials it would be a delight to see them clearing the ruck speedily to avoid the play-the-ball being slowed down, and also to maintain a good 10 metres. My other delight would be in hearing the Wigan supporters singing very loud and very proud!
Do you like this play-offs format?
Sean Lawless: This current play-off format rewards regular-season form, which I believe is important. If Castleford get to the Grand Final and win it, they will have to have beaten fourth, third, second and first to win the main prize – which is as it should be.
Jon Lyon: It seems needlessly hard to understand, or am I just a bit dim? But at least it rewards the top teams with a second chance, and creates excitement from the off with knock-out games among the lower teams in the top five, so we finally seem to have got things right. Let’s hope the powers-that-be leave things alone now, the last thing we need is another change in format for next year to confuse everyone further.
Darren Wrudd: Not really, if I am honest. Having beaten Salford, we may play them again and, if we beat Saints, we could play them again.
The structure seems to offer a little too much repetition.
I know the Super League needs games and paying spectators, but the contrived play-off systems and loop fixtures we have seen over recent years just serve to alienate fans as it is difficult sometimes to know what the permutations are.
I would move to 14 teams in the league, play everyone home and away once, then top place goes straight into the final while second and third play-off to join them. Simple, but fair.
Robert Kenyon: I prefer this format to the long drawn out Super 8s rubbish. I think this format has been the best one for a very long time.
David Bailey: I prefer this play-off format over any we have had previously. It rewards positions with real advantages like second chances and home games, and the fact that it’s top five means you have to have had a decent season to qualify.
Jeanette Lusher: I certainly prefer this format to the top eight system.
This format gives advantage to the teams who have strived all season to climb the league ladder.
It is however a tad complicated with its combination of weeks off, second chances and home advantages!
If Wigan could sign any Saints player – money no object – who would you want?
Sean Lawless: If Wigan could sign a St Helens player, it would have to be Luke Thompson. Thompson is a player that would improve most packs in world rugby, let alone the Super League.
Jon Lyon: There’s plenty of talent across the board at Saints, but the stand-out player over the last couple of seasons has been Luke Thompson. As a young prop with plenty improvement left in him, and his best years still a distance away, he can be anything he wants to be, and should be aiming for James Graham-levels of performance for both Saints and England. He would slot into any team in world rugby and would be a remarkable, if very unlikely, signing for us.
Sadly I can’t see it happening. The days of us poaching the likes of Gary Connolly and Andy Platt from Saints are long gone. Let’s hope instead Partington and Byrne can rise to Thompson’s level, so we don’t need to sign him. They have certainly started off on the right track.
Darren Wrudd: If it meant replacing one of our own squad, I am not sure I would spend the money. While Justin Holbrook has no doubt sprinkled some magic fairy dust over his team and they really are playing very well, there are some individuals who can perform. The only player I think may enhance our side would be Kevin Naiqama at centre, with the loss of Dan Sarginson next year. The Fiji international is a superb centre and very difficult to defend.
But with an embarrassment of riches in the back line as players come back from injuries, we really don’t need him. Thomson has been immense for Saints this year in the front row, he would improve any side he joined, but would Smithies, Partington and Byrne have got a chance if we just shipped in new names? Nah, I’m good thanks, pay the extra cash to the squad instead.
David Bailey: Jeez, do I have to pick one? If it was anyone in their prime, you would have to look no further than Roby. The guy is a machine and has been around the block a few times.
Makinson is another good shout as he is an incredible finisher, but we are well stocked on the wings when everyone’s fit. I wouldn’t swap Coote for Hardaker.
I think the best footballer in their team is Lomax and he seems to have overcome his early-career injury problems, so yeah, let’s go for Lomax. Now I need a lie down after all that praise.
Robert Kenyon: Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook... only joking, never in a million years.
I think Luke Thompson would be a good addition to the side, he’s one of the best props in the league and I’m looking forward to see how he goes for GB come the end of the season.
You can’t have enough good props in my opinion.
Jeanette Lusher: Being a firm believer in ‘forwards win games’ then my choice would most certainly be Luke Thompson. He has already achieved so much at both league and international level yet he is still only 24! He has such pace and never takes a backward step. My description of Luke would be that he is a destructive wrecking ball!
Who would you rather see in Super League – Toulouse, Toronto or Featherstone?
Sean Lawless: For a fan of growing the game of rugby league, Toronto or Toulouse in Super League would be fantastic.
As much as I would love to see Toronto in Super League in 2020, the prospect of Catalans v Toulouse would be incredible. I think another French side in Super League, off the back of Catalans’ Challenge Cup success last year, could be the tonic needed for French Rugby League. To get Featherstone would feel a bit like coming fourth in a two-horse race!
Jon Lyon: I remain dead-set against Toronto playing in an English competition. I’m all for expansion but the distance is farcical.
There are also plenty rumours about unpaid bills to Canadian television production companies which are worrying before they even make a Super League appearance. Their insistence on filling the team with over the hill Australians and soon to be retiring Super League players is hardly a great long-term plan to grow the club or the game in Canada.
Of the other two clubs I would probably prefer to see Toulouse come up as I feel they have the better chance of success and their promotion would benefit the strengthening of the French game.
Darren Wrudd: Without a doubt, Featherstone. An historic club with great ambition, the flat cappers would be a great addition to Super League if they could begin to generate better crowds. Chicken and egg I know, but if a year in the top-tier could help enhance their following they could become a big club.
Of course it’s all academic really as we have known all season that Toronto won’t slip up twice.
Full-time athletes will usually prevail over part time and the money Toronto have behind them is a massive carrot for the clowns at the RFL to welcome them into the fold. What value they bring is going to be anyone’s guess, I do hope Fev do it though.
Robert Kenyon: I’d rather see Featherstone in Super League. I’d rather have an established club with solid foundations and their own ground in the league. Toronto and Toulouse would be another empty away stand for everyone else in Super League, that’s not going to help the clubs is it? Even if 500 fans come from Featherstone each game it’s better than 0. Plus the novelty of them being in Super League would bring fans out of the woodwork.
Toronto, I’m still not convinced having 3,000 fans in a stadium for free means there is an appetite for the game there – what happens if the owner left?
And Toulouse, there is history there and I wouldn’t be unhappy if they got in. There would at least be a French derby to look forwards to and they’d be better than Toronto that’s for sure.
David Bailey: It really is an intriguing end to the season. There’s the heartland sleeping giants, Featherstone, who were a big club as a I was growing up and were successful in their day.
Toulouse have come from nowhere really and how good would it be to see “Olympique” taking on the Dragons next season? It could really ignite rugby league across the channel!
For me, though, to see Toronto as the first Transatlantic professional sports team would be an impressive coup for rugby league. I just like what they have achieved already and how they think outside the box.
Jeanette Lusher: My preference would be Toulouse. Catalans Dragons have achieved so much since their inclusion with ultimate success culminating in their invitation to take a game to the Nou Camp! The fans just love attending games in France and revelling in the holiday mode.
The profile of rugby league in France would be raised even more with two teams in Super League and would strengthen the French international squad.
A stronger French side would then increase the chances of rugby league running a viable five nations competition in the future.