Five things we learned from Wigan’s 22-14 friendly win at Leigh...
1. Friendlies are like alcohol-free beer or caffeine-free coffee... similar to the real thing, but lacking.
Sunday’s game had a few errors early as as the players dusted away the cobwebs, but generally the standard was a level above many pre-season games.
And while the perishing conditions and persistent down-pour suffocated the attacks, the physical exchanges and tight scoreline - it was 10-10 at half-time - kept it entertaining for the 4,500 fans who braved the cold - and forked out £20 a ticket.
2. Gabriel Hamlin capped a solid first outing in a Wigan shirt with a second-half try which put Wigan ahead.
A compact, whole-hearted prop, he looks like a shrewd recruit who should dial up the competition for places in the middle.
Another ‘fringe’ prop caught the eye at times - Frenchman Romain Navarrete. Like Hamlin, he is still learning, but it was great to see him carry the ball back at full-speed. Ben Flower played his first match since May and with Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Taulima Tautai, Ryan Sutton and Tony Clubb in the mix, Shaun Wane should finally have the prop competition he has craved.
Elsewhere, Dan Sarginson played his first match since returning but was disappointed with his scratchy performance, which was cut short by a bloodied nose. George Williams (broken nose), Tony Clubb (concussion assessment) and Joe Burgess (hip) also suffered injuries but none of them were serious.
3. It’s been the big question all month - who will Wane play at halfback this year?
He possibly showed his hand ahead of the Super League opener on February 2 with a fluid arrangement in which Sam Tomkins moved from full-back to halfback midway through the first-half. It works like this: Tomkins started at full-back, Sam Powell partnered George Williams in the halves, and Thomas Leuluai at No.9. But instead of having a bench hooker, full-back Morgan Escare replaced Leuluai before half-time. The Frenchman played in his preferred position, Tomkins moved to the halves and Powell up to hooker - that way, fit-again Escare was fresh when he was introduced, and he showed a couple of electric bursts.
On the half backs/hookers, it was nice to see Jake Shorrocks back on the pitch - and scoring the match-sealing try - after 11-months on the sidelines.
4. Sam Tomkins looks set to start the season with the goal-kicking responsibility.
Wigan’s kickers have been working with former England RU star Charlie Hodgson in the off-season, and Tomkins has got the nod ahead of Powell, Escare and Shorrocks for the thankless task. Tomkins kicked two of the three conversions at the Sports Village (he was off the pitch in the final quarter, when Escare converted Shorrocks’ try). And Leigh coach Neil Jukes praised Wigan’s place kicking, with Tomkins taking many of the clearing kicks, and Williams a threat with his stabs into the ingoal, one of which created a try for Oliver Gildart.
5. Leigh did a fine job in giving Mickey Higham a fitting farewell in his final game.
Both teams formed a guard of honour for the ex-Saints, Wigan and Warrington hooker, and Higham was welcomed into the visitors’ dressing room after the game to receive a few words of praise - and a bottle of whisky! - from his old club. New-look Leigh have a good squad and Wane saw enough to make him suggest they will “kill it” in the Championship this season. They open their season with a mouth-watering clash against Paul Rowley’s Toronto on February 4.