Wigan have had a relatively turbulent existence in Super League. Entering summer Rugby as the undoubted alpha dogs of the game, they’ve seen that crown slip and with one title in the Super League era they have not lived up to their potential in the same way that St Helens, Bradford and even Leeds have. A few seasons ago their priorities kept getting lower and lower, going from hoping to make the the playoffs to trying to avoid relegation. The Warriors appear to be over that phase now and should be challenging for honours once again this year.
Indeed, the progress that Brian Noble has made in his spell at Wigan is often overlooked. Their run in the 2007 playoffs (including away victories at Bradford and Hull) was thrilling to watch, and they also had a morale-boosting away victory in Catalonia during last year’s effort. For the past two seasons their campaign has ended in honourable defeat to the eventual champions Leeds Rhinos at Headingley. Now there’s no shame in that, but the players must really be getting itchy to reach the Grand Final and it is up to Noble to show that he can lead them there. Finishing higher in the table so they don’t need so many heroic away victories in the playoffs would be a good start.
The key to Wigan’s season will be how they cope with the loss of Trent Barrett. He wasn’t as eye-catching in his second year, but that was because he was under far more scrutiny from defenses, which in turn meant that less pressure was on Thomas Leuluai who had his best year at Wigan yet. Tim Smith is an erratic player, so Leuluai needs to step up the effort. The forwards should do the job in providing go-forward, but they will also need to provide some extra guile. You have to wonder about the creativity of this side no it has lost Barrett (and Mickey Higham). They also need to add an extra dimension through their back three, although the addition of Amos Roberts to Pat Richards and a fully rehabilitated Richie Mathers might just be able to do this.
Wigan have recovered from their Super League lows of a few seasons ago, and this is the year that they need to prove they can hang with the big boys. They have definitely been on an upward curve on the last few seasons, but now they need to make the transition to A Grand Final victory will undoubtedly be their target (as it should be) but there are question marks as to whether there’s enough outstanding quality in the side to achieve this. They should also be aiming to get back to what used to be their home away from home and usurp their rivals at Saints who have taken their title of cup kings. Wigan are starting to reach the oint where trophyless seasons are a disappointement in themselves again, and there’s only one cure for that…
Pros: After their flirtation with relegation a few seasons ago Wigan are clearly on the right track. It’s easy to overlook the fact that this side has been one win away from the Grand Final for the past two seasons running. They have a nailed-on points machine in Pat Richards (Super League’s top points scorer for the past two seasons), some very nice additions from the NRL (especially Amos Roberts) and a nice stock of Academy players hoping to prove their worth. Their forwards are impressive, especially with Stuart Fielden looking back in form last year. They also have very good crowds who stayed loyal during the tough times and now deserve to have their faith repaid.
Cons: Brian Noble’s sides have rarely been what you would describe as finesse sides, which is a burden for this team. They seem to lack penetration and it would be really good for them if Amos Roberts and Karl Pryce added some threat to their attack. With Trent Barrett leaving this year there will also be question marks about the creativity on offer for Wigan. Oh, and it would do wonders for their credibility if they didn’t just lie down and die against Saints in their meetings this year (they lost by 36, 41 and 34 points to their local rivals last year, with a draw at the end of the regular season).
Coach: Brian Noble is the most successful coach of the Super League era with three winner’s rings from five Grand Finals, but they were all obtained at Bradford. It should be pointed out that under Noble’s stewardship Wigan have been heading in the right direction away from the nadir they were in when he took over, but his spell with GB and his lack of any trophies with Wigan have provided ammunition to those who say that his Bradford teams won because of the quality of the team and not the coaching. Some silverware and consistent success this year would go a long way to appeasing the doubters.
Captain: Sean O’Loughlin continues the family tradition (he’s Andy Farrell’s brother-in-law)
Key Man: With a young half-back combination, it’s going to be important that the forwards offer them something to work with and in that regard Gareth Hock needs to now step up and become a leader. The term ‘Hock-on’ has entered the lexicon of the supporters of Wigan’s opponents, but if he can eliminate the errors from his game and instead forcus on his damaging running game then the platfrom he and the rest of the forwards lay down could be very useful for Leuluai and Smith.
Young ‘un: Will Sam Tomkins get a chance this season? His debut against Whitehaven in the cup couldn’t really have gone much better, but he’s not played in Super League yet and many people seem to worry about his size. At the very least we should see him spelled off the bench this year (especially given the starting alternatives) so we can ascertain if this size thing is going to be a problem.
Wild Card: Iafeta Paleaaesina can often be one of the most destrcutive props in the game… but then he has to go off to get his breath back. Has Paleaaesina worked up enough fitness to become a long-shift prop? Alternatively, is Noble an astute enough coach to know when to use him in a game and when to spare him? Wigan really could do with him causing destruction on the field as much as possible this year.
Gains: Mark Riddell, Amos Roberts
Two very good imports here. Amos arrives at the JJB a year early to free up some salary cap space for the Sydney Roosters, and he might just be the cutting edge that they need. Riddell should offer a good service from dummy-half, even if he isn’t the most atheletic-looking of players…
Losses: Trent Barrett, Mickey Higham, Mark Calderwood, Liam Colbon
Wigan will obviously miss Barrett who was one of the few big-name signings to really come through for them in the last few years. They may also miss Higham as well, although his replacement is no dud. Calderwood and Colborn were both fairly solid, but neither exactly lit up the JJB either.