Not only was 2017 not Warrington Wolves’ year, it was an unqualified disaster. Highly fancied by many (including this idiot tipster who backed them to carry off the League Leaders Shield) Wire showed early promise with an impressive World Club Series win over Brisbane Broncos before falling in a stupendous heap once the league programme kicked in. Tony Smith’s side missed the top eight, albeit only by a point, and had to rescue their Super League status via the Qualifiers.
That embarrassment was Smith’s cue to leave the building. After an eight-year spell which had brought with it three Challenge Cup wins and three appearances in the Grand Final, Smith parted company with the Wolves to be replaced by former St.George-Illawarra Dragons coach Steve Price. Though Smith never won a Grand Final he arguably leaves the club in better shape than it was when he found it and still, despite the struggles of last term, in a reasonable position to challenge for major honours.
Not that there wasn’t a need for a little bit of fresh blood and some new ideas. Smith had gone stale at the Halliwell Jones Stadium and so had many of his squad. A whole pack of Wolves have departed, two of whom will join another Wolf pack as Joe Westerman and Ashton Sims head for Toronto. Brad Dwyer is one of the brightest prospects at hooker in all of Super League but he will now ply his trade for Leeds Rhinos, while Rhys Evans (Leigh Centurions), Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors), Ben Pomeroy (Lezignan Sangliers) and Sam Wilde (Widnes Vikings) are among the other big names to board the Good Ship Do One. Kurt Gidley’s guile and experience in the halves will be missed after his retirement while Matty Blythe also calls time on his career. Enigmatic winger Kevin Penny has been released. Again. He’ll probably be back. It’s like Fatal Attraction.
So who has Price brought in to replace this raft of rugby league revolutionaries? Tyrone Roberts from Gold Coast Titans is probably the headline capture. Roberts has picked up an injury and may miss the start of the season but with 138 NRL appearances to his name in spells with Newcastle and the Titans the 26-year-old halfback is proven quality and should light up the Super League when fit. If Roberts can form an exciting halfback partnership with Kevin Brown then things could get exciting in Cheshire, what with the three-quarter line now including Bryson Goodwin who joins after making 99 appearances and scoring 33 tries for South Sydney Rabbitohs. Goodwin is a former New Zealand international and certainly one to watch in an area where Warrington looked a little short of options last time around. Ryan Atkins may not be everyone’s hot beverage of choice but the two of them could form an impressive attacking partnership for the Wolves with Tom Lineham and Matty Russell offering further options ahead of Stefan Ratchford. Mitch Brown has joined from Leigh Centurions also and will look to challenge for a spot in the backs also.
The main addition to the pack is Ben Murdoch-Masila, snapped up from Salford Red Devils after some stellar performances for the AJ Bell Stadium side over the last two seasons. At 26 he is another entering the peak of his career and who has NRL experience having played over 50 times in spells with Wests Tigers and Penrith Panthers. Sitaleki Akalu’ola is slightly less NRL experience in his career with those two clubs but could be another useful addition to the Wolves back row. Those two are added to a forward group that already includes my annual Man Of Steel tip Chris Hill following his excellent World Cup with England, 2014’s Daryl Clarke at hooker and the fit-again Ben Currie. The 23-year-old missed almost all of last season with a serious knee injury and was a huge miss for the Wire pack. If he can get back to his pre-injury form then he is another who could inspire Warrington to better things in 2018.
Warrington host the first game of the new Super League season when they welcome Leeds Rhinos to the Halliwell Jones Stadium on February 1. They couldn’t really have asked for a tougher start than a visit from the champions, before they make the journey to West Yorkshire to take on Rick Stone’s Huddersfield Giants. Then it is a Cheshire derby with what looks a sub-standard Widnes Vikings side in Round 3 (which they’re calling Round 12 as it has been brought forward from that date to allow Widnes to slum it Round 5 of the Challenge Cup) before Wigan Warriors visit in Round 4 (which they are calling Round 3 because…yeah, you get the picture….). The Warriors may be vulnerable as they will be just back from their needless and vain trip to Australia to face Hull FC in the game that the locals are already calling A Rugby League Match. Wigan aren’t really Wigan at present with nobody but the bookmakers fancying their chances of making the top four. Bookies are rarely wrong but in rugby league they seem to just sit with their feet up watching Jeremy Kyle while writing the Warriors’ name at the top of their list because well…..they’re Wigan.
Back to Warrington. It’s probably not their year again. They will go a lot better than they did in 2017 but there is just the nagging suspicion that there has been just a little too much upheaval at the club for a genuine tilt at the title. They may be a reasonable tip for the Challenge Cup, however, depending on the draw and whether they can afford any major injuries along the way.