Why George Burgess fits into Ian Lenagan's masterplan for Wigan Warriors
George Burgess’ capture was a bold statement of Wigan’s intent – and it generated a lot of excitement among supporters.
But for Ian Lenagan, the greatest satisfaction wasn’t from the fans’ reaction or knowing they had beaten Super League and NRL clubs to his signature... but rather from the way their plans for 2020 had come together.
Before last weekend, they already tied down coach Adrian Lam and off-contract players such as Joe Burgess and Morgan Smithies, replaced George Williams with Jackson Hastings and bolstered the squad in other areas, too.
But the addition of England prop Burgess feels like the missing piece in the pack puzzle, the type of player who will complement the grizzled veterans Tony Clubb and Ben Flower and the exciting potential of Joe Bullock and youngsters Liam Byrne and Oli Partington.
And to quote the A-Team’s charismatic Hannibal Smith, Lenagan loves it when plans come together.
“We feel we have planned well for 10 years, Kris (Radlinski, executive director) and I have tracked our way through uncertainty rather well,” said Lenagan.
“And we feel we have got it demonstrably right this year. It’s a statement of intent of where we’re going.
“We feel we have the best academy ever – from Harry Smith to Umyla Hanley, we’ve got a plethora of good young talent in addition to those who have already made their way into the first-team.
“We’ve retained many of our key players and in addition, we’ve got exciting stars like Bevan French and George Burgess on board.”
Wigan’s consistency over the last decade stands as a testament to their squad-planning.
They have either won a trophy or appeared in a final in every season since 2010 – no small feat in an era when clubs’ spending is limited by a salary cap.
Even during their poorest Super League campaign of 2017, they reached Wembley and won the World Club Challenge.
And after a rocky start this season, they look poised for another late-season charge into the play-offs. Lam blooded some academy graduates during an injury crisis and now has the team playing with the attacking flair that he promised - validating Lenagan's decision to stick with him when they were 10th in the ladder in mid-April.
“You make judgments and when you do that, there’s no point hiring and firing,” he said.
“Leeds made a different judgement (with David Furner) and they’ve not gained from it.
"If I’d have gone and looked for another assistant coach in the NRL, would we get someone better than Adrian? He’s assistant to Mal Meninga with the Kangaroos, he’s been head coach of PNG, worked at three NRL clubs, and he loves this place. That’s a good pedigree. While the Shaun Edwards (U-turn) was unfortunate, we’ve come out of it very well.”
Utility back French has arrived this week to bolster the current squad, while Burgess – younger brother of Sam and twin sibling of Thomas – will leave Souths for Wigan at the end of the year.
Wigan are taking advantage of the second marquee player allowance to recruit the England prop, meaning only £150,000 of his lucrative salary counts on the cap. Hastings will take the other slot vacated by Canberra-bound Williams.
“We’ve always wanted a big prop who can go for three, four, five years with us, and we thing George Burgess can do,” said Lenagan, speaking from his new office at their Robin Park training base. The window looks out on to the training pitches, where the current stars were preparing, while the walls are decorated by framed memorabilia.
“I spoke to him this morning and he’s excited, he wants to come over here,” he said. "He said he’s looking forward to developing the young forwards, and we can’t underestimate how much someone like Joe Bullock, for example, will learn from George Burgess. George said he wants to win trophies and he liked what he saw with the squad, and with where he sees Wigan going.
“And from our point of view, he ticks every box.
“We don’t want to pay big money for 30-somethings, we think getting players in their prime, or just before their prime, is the way forward.
“He’s 27, he’s the right calibre of player, he wants to come back to the UK, he’s playing for England, and we can build him as a star name.”
Lenagan expects Burgess to be their final signing for 2020, having previously signed Cas’ prop Mitch Clark and Salford duo Hastings and Jake Bibby.
Thomas Leuluai is expected to play on while the club is speaking to captain Sean O’Loughlin about playing on in 2020.
Dan Sarginson and Williams will depart, Morgan Escare’s future at the club looks even more uncertain now French’s arrival has pushed him further down the pecking order, and other fringe players may make way. Wigan have already released Liam Forsyth, Liam Paisley and Josh Ganson from the squad this year.
“We have to be a touch more ruthless on some of our younger players,” said Lenagan.
“We’ve occasionally afforded them to stay when they’re not really going to make it.
“We may make a mistake along the way but in the end you need to back your judgement because if you’re going to bring in players of the calibre of George Burgess, you need to do that.”
Lenagan has made no secret of the fact he wants the club to stop losing money. They reported losses of £1m combined in 2017 and ’16 and they will not break even this year, either. He is “absolutely determined” to put the Warriors onto a solid financial footing.
But some have taken his prudent approach as a lack of his commitment, and last year's recruitment of three Championship players - Bullock, Jarrod Sammut and Chris Hankinson - only provided ammunition to them.
Their consistency over the last decade would suggest their recruitment policy is working just fine but, even so, many could see the recruitment of Burgess a statement of Lenagan's intent, too.
“I don’t need to make that statement,” he insisted. “We’re consistently putting money in. You look at the squad, we’ve always been up to the cap limit, we’ve always had marquee players to the level we’re allowed – it was one, now it’s two.
“So it’s complete fallacy that we don’t invest enough.”