'Wigan Warriors could be in top five within a month... but they could also be bottom' - Talking RL column
Reflecting on the Magic Weekend - and why the next five games could make or break Wigan's season...
I’ve been to every Magic Weekend since its launch in 2007 – and Anfield certainly delivered.
I wasn’t as excited about this year’s event, though that may have been in part because of the timing, just days after the high of the Nou Camp adventure.
It certainly exceeded my expectations.
There was skepticism when the Magic Weekend moved to Liverpool – its fifth host city – and even Super League officials admitted they expected a crowd of around 50,000 over the two days. As it had staged two internationals recently, it didn’t have the ‘novelty’ factor.
And in the list of pros and cons for all the venues, the fact Anfield isn’t in the heart of the city – like Newcastle and Cardiff – was a definite drawback.
There were stalls and activities outside the ground, but fewer incentives to wonder away from the area.
The plus to that, though, was it seemed more fans were inside the ground watching the games.
Maybe it was the ground’s design, maybe it was perception, but the atmosphere crackled from start to finish, with thousands of Wigan and Warrington fans among the healthy opening day attendance of 30,057. And while the aggregate of 56,869 was down on the crowds in Newcastle, it was strong enough to convince Super League CEO Robert Elstone to strongly considering heading back to Liverpool in 2020.
Yes, there were teething problems – transport, for one. Reportedly running out of beer, another.
But all in all, it was an enjoyable event at the ground.
There was entertainment between matches, to keep the day flowing fast, and it was great to see disabled teams, and learning difficulties teams, represented.
As for the Super League games themselves, only the Huddersfield-Hull FC fixture was a let-down. The fact Lee Radford's side are fourth, with a for-and-against of -87, speaks volumes of their vulnerability to a blow-out defeat.
Saints are definitely leading the way - they look a step above everyone else right now, including second-placed Wire, who made it three wins from three against the Warriors this season.
Yes, I was disappointed Wigan lost, but they came out swinging, and were in the contest for an hour.
Adrian Lam felt they were the better side until Blake Austin’s individual effort; I didn’t. I thought their attack in the first-half lacked direction and a cutting edge, and the way their heads dipped when things went against them was poor.
But for the most part, they had a dig, which was more than could be said the previous week against Catalans.
Think about Wigan’s most recent six matches, and they’ve won the three you’d probably have expected – against Salford (a), Castleford (h) and London (h) – and lost the three you may have predicted (twice on the road to Warrington, and in arguably the biggest Super League game in Catalans’ history).
Taking that logic on, their next five matches fall firmly in the category of ‘winnable’.
Hull KR, Leeds, Huddersfield – all away – before Salford and the Robins at the DW.
Three against sides below them in the table. And as for the other two, Huddersfield are only just above, while Salford are a side that Wigan have twice beaten already this year on their travels.
Not gimmes by any stretch, but definitely winnable if they play with the same intent and defensive bite as their last two matches against the Wolves.
They will be boosted by the return of Liam Farrell – the forward’s quality is definitely noticed when he is missing. Thomas Leuluai, absent last week, is another senior player who they missed at the Magic Weekend.
So I’m going to risk egg on face, now, by predicting four wins from their next five.
Wigan may be in ninth, but suggestions their season is over are ridiculously premature. They are only four points off the top five.
And the teams above them will all be taking points off each other over the next few weeks - the Warriors could be in the play-offs positions for the start of July.
Could they trouble the sides above them if they make the top-five? Right now, I'd say 'no'. But let's get there first, and see what form they're in - and what form their rivals are in at that point. Saints and Cas' have shown in the last two years that the best team in Super League all year doesn't always win Super League.
Before I’m accused of being too optimistic, I’m also aware the Warriors are also only four points off the bottom - they could tumble if they play as poorly as they have at times this year.
Lose some of their next five games, especially the 'four pointers' against KR and Leeds, and they could be dragged into a relegation scrap.
To say the next few weeks are make or break is no overstatement.
The one down side about the Magic Weekend, for me, was it clashed with the Joseph’s Goal legends game at Ashton Town.
Some big names from Wigan Athletic’s past edged past a Manchester United legends side captained Bryan Robson.
The home line-up included former captain Arjan De Zeeuw – easily my favourite ever Latics player – who, by all reports, went from the game to King Street, before heading straight to the airport for an early-morning flight back to Holland.
And I thought I couldn’t have respected Arry any more!
Anyone still cynical about women’s rugby league should consider the crowd which watched Castleford’s game against Featherstone last Thursday night – 1,148!
That was more than some of the gates in the Championship, and all the games in League One (which, admittedly, are much dearer to watch). Great stuff.
The story of St Helens winger Adam Swift signing a deal with Hull FC for 2020 was accompanied by a picture of him in an FC shirt.
No, no, no! I wish clubs would stop putting players into the awkward spot of asking them to pose in a shirt for a club they don't play for yet. A club that doesn't pay their wages, yet.
It's bad enough when they won't play against their current club when they move (think Chris Ashton-Northampton)!
James Graham played on last weekend despite suffering a broken leg.
A. Broken. Leg.