In the first part of our exclusive interview with Warriors’ executive director Kris Radlinski, he speaks candidly about Micky McIlorum’s release, the return of another former player – and explains why the salary cap may prevent them from strengthening the squad...
Do you understand why fans may be disappointed and baffled by the decision to release Micky McIlorum to join Catalans?
I understand it, of course I do. Micky has been one of our success stories over the years. But if we look at it from the ‘value for money’ point of view – and by his own admission, his form wasn’t great last season – and if we consider the way he plays the game, his age, and then you look at our other options in that position... Tommy (Leuluai) has said he wants to play at nine, we have Sam Powell, we have players coming through, and Micky has got a genuine chance to make a lot of money in the last few years of his career.
If you put all that together, then it was something we had to look at.
Yes, I get why Wigan fans love him – we love him. He’ll always be a friend of ours. We’ve helped him develop into the player and person he is. But everything comes to an end at some point and I 100 per cent think this was the right decision.
There seemed a contradiction in the club’s statement over who drove it. Micky suggested he was nudged out, and Ian (Lenagan) said the club didn’t want to stand in his way...
‘The biggest stars in the NRL are probably earning as much as some of our clubs’ entire salary cap’
We didn’t instigate it. His agent approached us during the World Cup and said that Micky wants him to have a look in the NRL, even before (Canberra’s) Josh Hodgson was injured. We knew he wanted a (better) contract, we knew he had genuine interest, and we also knew our own position, in terms of the salary cap and what players we had.
It wasn’t so much a nudge as us saying, ‘Micky, you probably should look at this.’
Maybe he could have worded his part differently, but there’s no fall-out. We wish him all the best, and I hope he kills it there – I think the move will help him kick on.
I think some fans may have understood if he was released to join an NRL club, rather than a Super League rival...
Catalans only came to the party late. Initially, Canberra wanted him, so we were in talks with them but they weren’t prepared to pay a big salary for someone to play for eight months until Josh Hodgson was fit again. From their point of view, they were willing to give him a chance to establish himself and then try and get another NRL club for 2019, but then he got an attractive contract offer from Catalans, and went with that.
Will it free-up some money to make another signing for this season?
Not really. The salary cap limit has gone up (to a base level of £1.9m) and even though Dan Sarginson has replaced Anthony Gelling, Gabe (Hamlin) has come in, and there have been significant increases across the squad. Many of our younger players have contracts which increase each year, to reflect their development. People rejoiced at the news that George signed a new contract early in the season but his new contract only kicked in on December 1, so we will pick up that increase this season.
Anthony Gelling has also left, to be closer to his family in New Zealand. How much will you miss him?
We’ll miss him, and I think Super League will miss him. Off the field, he brought something which I’ve not seen since Martin Offiah was playing. But he sat in front of me and emotionally asked for a release as his girlfriend had been involved in a bad accident and he needed to go home. We had no option in those circumstances. It was disappointing as he had returned from his break in terrific condition.
Why was there a delay in announcing both McIlorum and Anthony Gelling were leaving?
It was announced immediately after the paperwork was signed. Micky’s move was only finalised over New Year while he was still on holiday in San Fransisco – it went on longer than we thought – and with Gells, we were still dealing with it two days after Boxing Day. We knew he was going, but we just had to protect ourselves so, for example, I didn’t just want him leaving us and then signing for another Super League club for a bigger salary.
And presumably, a knock-on effect has been a delay in releasing squad numbers?
Yes. We asked ourselves, ‘Do we release them with Micky still in it?’ because he was still a Wigan player. But then we didn’t want fans having his name printed on the back of their shirt, when we knew he was probably going, so we decided to wait until the squad was finalised.
Gelling has been replaced with Dan Sarginson - who is another former player returning...
Yes, but that wasn’t an emotive signing – we got really lucky with Sarge. We needed a replacement centre, very late in the day, and he became available.
We 100 per cent know what we’re getting with Sarge, and within an hour of his first session back with us, we realised it was the right decision. The fact that he’s an ex-player was coincidental.... it isn’t part of our recruitment policy to bring back former players.
We’ll look at who’s available and assess players on merit, and sometimes it works in our favour that they have played here before. Tommy, for example, was offered a lot more by another club but decided to come back to us.
Every person in Wigan would have made the same call on Sam Tomkins, I’m convinced of it, but he’s been unlucky with injuries since he returned. Hopefully we see the best of him this year.
With Sarginson replacing Gelling and you losing your first-choice hooker, you could make an argument the squad is weaker. How confident are you Wigan can improve on last season?
Injuries need to play a part. I’m not using injuries as an excuse for last year, but it was a factor. Ben Flower is back and he’s like a new signing for us. Morgan Escare, too (both suffered season-ending injuries in May). It’s up to Shaun Wane who he starts with, but there’s a genuine chance we will see Sam (Tomkins) and Morgan playing together, and with George maturing and Tommy at nine – it’s an exciting spine to the side.
There are provisions in the salary cap to spend more than the £1.9m, in addition to having two marquee players. In total, how much will Wigan be spending this season?
In excess of £2.2m, which to my knowledge is more than any other Super League club. Some clubs don’t even spend up to the cap limit, and – with the dispensations available – we’re going well above the £1.9m. We’ve got two marquee players (Williams and Tomkins), we’re allowed an extra £100,000 for producing so many club-trained players, there’s a £15,000 dispensation for player welfare... looking after the cap is like a full-time job, and the reality is some players are earning good money.
If I sat down with some fans, with pens and paper, and asked them to go through our squad and make it work, I think some would be 20, maybe 30 grand lower with their estimations of some players. It is a big challenge.
We’re all fishing from the same pond and, at the same time, we have NRL clubs offering more and more money.
Two or three years ago they were talking about the first million dollar player in the NRL – I don’t think they’re too far off having two million dollar players. With third-party sponsorship, they’re earning a lot.
The biggest stars in the NRL are probably earning as much as some of our clubs’ entire salary cap. The threat is massive, and that’s the challenge we’re up against.
If we take Jermaine McGillvary, who was an England star in the World Cup – his Australian counterpart, Valentine Holmes, is earning six times the amount as Jermaine.
Does it frustrate you that fans voice their opinions without knowing the figures involved?
I don’t like getting criticised, that’s only natural but I am fully aware that it comes with the territory. I enjoy the fact people are talking about it because it shows their passion.
They only voice these opinions because they care about Wigan.
They are genuine questions, and if you don’t know the details you’ve every right to ask them.
But when we’re making decisions, we don’t just base this on 80 minutes at the weekend. It’s the whole picture with a player, their commitment, the chemistry in the group, injuries, succession plans, community engagement as well as the amount they earn.
We live this job and know the players intimately.
We often can’t come out and say the reasons that we have come to some decisions because we live in a very litigious society.
I will say that if fans had the same details as we had, I am confident that the same decisions would be reached.