'Why Zak Hardaker has been Wigan Warriors' player of the year' - the 18th man column

Zak Hardaker (centre) has enjoyed a fine debut season with Wigan
Zak Hardaker (centre) has enjoyed a fine debut season with Wigan

Our 18th Man columnists pick out their highs and lows of a rollercoaster season

I’ll remember Wigan’s 2019 campaign for...

Robert Kenyon: The off-field rubbish, the poor start followed by a better finish in the league. As expected it’s a transition season, I’d say we did better than expected in league position considering everything that the club has been through.

Jon Lyon: A great comeback. After a very poor start and plenty off-the-field distractions, to win 13 of 14 games to lead up to the play-offs was astonishing. Without a determined attitude the season could easily have turned into a relegation battle.

Teams like Warrington, Hull and Wakefield started well and had momentum, we had the opposite, yet the team worked incredibly hard to finish in a very unlikely 2nd place.

Darren Wrudd: 2019 for me meant the coming of age of some more of our young men. Wanting to debut some of the next crop of home-grown players Lam had said that he would gently introduce and not over expose – how wrong that turned out to be. Injuries seem to hit all too regularly at Wigan and sooner than expected we had Byrne, Partington and Smithies thrown into the mix – how awesome have they been?

The season was long, though, for their young frames and I think we saw that in the last two weeks of our season. Nevertheless, I shall not forget the year that they burst on to the scene. Add to that young Harry Smith’s debut and 2020 looks as upbeat as ever.

Jeanette Lusher: I’ll remember Wigan’s 2019 campaign for the rollercoaster ride that it was both on and off the field! Could any other club endure so many calamities, so much media exposure and so much venom?

Does any other club have the mental toughness to battle its way out of the depths of relegation and go on to achieve second spot in the league? I shall therefore remember this season for those that kept the faith and believed in Wigan.

My favourite game was...

Robert Kenyon: Believe it or not the first half of the Castleford game, we absolutely destroyed them and looked like a new team until Sammut got injured and they ended up winning. But that game was a good game to watch.

Jon Lyon: Wigan 46 Wakefield 16. Whilst Wakefield were poor, we had a much weakened pack and our young forwards really stood up to be counted. Some of the attacking play in the first half was scintillating and was what we had been hoping to see all year, and great to see stand-in captain Faz end up with a well deserved hat-trick.

Darren Wrudd: A single game which stood out for me was an away win at Hull FC at the beginning of August. Final score 14-15 and pipped them by one point. Hull were going well and they gave a tough game which needed a real resolve to come out on top. We showed that we had grit and character on that day after some disappointing results and belief crept back into the squad and fans alike.

Jeanette Lusher: My favourite game was our last league fixture of 2019 against Castleford.

Who could have envisaged that the identity of who finished where in the top five went down to the final 80 minutes of league rugby? Who would have thought that the identity of the club to be relegated in 2019 was also to be decided in the closing 80 minutes? What a climax to the regular season! Wigan went about their business with confidence and self-belief.

They got the basics right, defended with ardour and attacked with flair. It was a joy to know that we had secured second in the league and the added bonus for me was in knowing we had spoilt the day for Daryl Powell.

Wigan’s player of the year was...

Robert Kenyon: Zak Hardaker for pure effort from start to finish, closely followed by Morgan Smithies. Hardaker may not be the attacking threat he once was. I’m sure with a good off-season behind him along with the match fitness he’s gained this season after his long period out, I firmly believe next season, as long as he gets his head down in winter, he will be back to his best.

Smithies a close second with his effort too, he’s a tackling machine and if I was an NRL scout looking at recruiting the best young English talent, he’d be top of my list.

Jon Lyon: Zak Hardaker. Over the full season he got better and better every week, and by the end he was back to the Zak of yesteryear, saving tries galore with last-ditch tackles and returning the ball with real venom. Farrell may have run him close had he been fit for the whole season, such was the impact he had on the team when he returned.

Darren Wrudd: My personal selection for player of the year would have to be Zak Hardaker. Having such a turbulent arrival at the DW, Zak needed to settle and feel wanted.

The best way he could do that was get his head down and try to return to his best form which took a little time, but he never stopped improving. The fans have taken to Zak and appreciate his contribution to the team. Watching his progress with a keen eye I have been really proud of his attitude and hope he takes much from the massive steps he has taken.

I am thrilled that he seems settled and can only look forward to seeing what next year brings for this young man. Well done Zak, you have been superb.

Jeanette Lusher: Wigan’s player of the year for me was Tommy Leuluai. What an awesome player he has been throughout his time at Wigan. This year his class and experience have helped to guide the team around the park and to steady the ship in turbulent times. His reputation as a hard hitter is truly established for we have witnessed the amazement on the faces of many bigger opponents who have been left wondering what the hell just hit them after a tackle from Tommy!

The highlight for me was...

Robert Kenyon: Morgan Smithies breaking the tackling record, the lad’s a machine. That’s probably the only great thing that stands out from this season.

Jon Lyon: Bevan French’s second try against Catalans in September. A hint of the speed and talent he has to offer with a sensational solo try from nothing.

Whichever position he plays in he will provide plenty of entertainment next year. An honourable mention to the on-screen banter between Steve Price, Justin Holbrook and Adrian Lam during the Warrington game in August. A fantastic moment, and well done to all three coaches, plus the Sky Sports cameraman and the fans for joining in the fun.

Darren Wrudd: Many highlights have been thrown up this year. The debut try by Harry Smith, Tony Clubb smashing his way through the centre like a man possessed but I suppose watching our young forwards knock hell out of oppositions has made me smile the most.

TV pundits have berated them on several occasions for lack of respect and even the referee has penalised Ollie for ruffling the opposition’s hair as he laughed, how terrible a crime although I can’t seem to find that one in the rules. Please continue to show no respect to the opposition lads, for the 80 minutes that is, it’s been a joy.

Jeanette Lusher: The highlight for me was the development of Morgan Smithies. What a prodigious talent he is. He has such skill and power. He is tenacious and never takes a backward step. His defence is awesome – 72 tackles in 62 minutes of play is incredible! I cannot wait to watch him in 2020 when he has a full pre-season under his belt and can carry forward this season’s learning experiences!

The low-point was...

Robert Kenyon: Every big game we played, whether it was the World Club Challenge, season opener against Saints, Nou Camp, Warrington at Anfield or in the Challenge Cup, any of the semis or any of the derbies, we didn’t manage to win a single big game all season.

Jon Lyon: The last two games of the season. Nothing but credit to the players for the run we’d been on but it looked like we’d just run out of energy. The toll of playing catch up and having to win every week was just too much come playoff time.

Shaun Edwards’ treatment of the club also left a nasty taste in the mouth, not what you’d expect from a club legend.

Darren Wrudd: A low point for me was the losing to St Helens at the semi-final qualifier. It was the first sign of fatigue in a squad who must have been shattered.

Too many senior players carrying injuries and playing on when they should have been in rehab, too many youngsters putting in far too many hours on the field. I thought then that we had little chance of making Old Trafford and however hopeful, we just ran out of steam.

Jeanette Lusher: The announcement regarding Gabe Hamlin! He had made such a promising start to his career at Wigan. He was exciting to watch and had such go forward. I was disappointed in him but I was disappointed for him too. Such a young lad forging his career many miles away from the care and support of family and friends is a really tough ask. I do so hope that he is able to resurrect his playing career in the future and to overcome this setback.

Four players have already been recruited... any other areas need strengthening?

Robert Kenyon: We need another hooker, we only have one in Powell and if he gets injured were needing to move Leuluai from No.7, disrupting the team. Having two hookers will also put pressure on them both to play well. We also need another prop, someone who will take the ball up twice a set, make over 100 metres and 30 tackles, someone akin to Andy Coley or Terry O’Connor. So someone reliable and consistent with a solid work ethic, not going to have the best YouTube highlight reel but that’s not the player we need. Also a big second rower, someone with a bit of size and an offloading game.

Jon Lyon: I’d be surprised if we have any room under the salary cap left, especially if the crowds don’t start to come back next year. I think we have most bases covered with a lot of versatile players, let’s just hope they can all stay fit.

Darren Wrudd: A winning team revolves around four key players. Full back – tick, hooker – tick, stand-off – tick, scrum half... hmmmm. With Thomas Leuluai getting older, he cannot be expected to do the 80 minutes and we need a 6 and 7 who can team up for the year.

I would love to see one of the young lads take it by the horns but without a dedicated half-back coach I feel we are missing something in our organisation.

We lose structure too easily in attack and need a general to take control. I fear that eggs in one basket with Hastings is a risky position and would love to see a dedicated attacking threat alongside him.

Jeanette Lusher: The four recruited players seem to have covered our weaker areas. Our front row certainly needed more power.

The introduction of George Burgess and Mitch Clark alongside a fully recovered Joe Bullock and the hungry youngsters Liam Byrne and Olly Partington, not forgetting the experience of Ben Flower and Tony Clubb, should give us plenty of go-forward indeed.

The recruitment of Jake Bibby to replace Dan Sarginson seems a very shrewd investment so our backs are sorted. The final and most important piece of the jigsaw is the capture of Jackson Hastings as the vital link between an awesome front row and a speedy set of backs.

Jackson will be the one to guide the lads around the pitch and if he is linked with Bevan French in the halves then we most assuredly will be a team to fear in 2020!