For the first time since Shaun Wane were a lad, wearing short pants and just getting his first taste of pie and pea-wet, nobody fancies Wigan to do well in Super League this year. The Warriors missed the 2017 semi-finals, eventually finishing a disappointing sixth. Disappointing for them, that is. I’m still chuckling. As a result they are expected by everyone but the bookies to struggle again in 2018 but you know, it’s them. You can’t write them off.
Unlike the similarly useless Warrington, the baby has not gone out with the bath water in Wigan. Changes have been kept to a minimum in terms of the playing staff and Wane remains in charge. In fairness to the Pie Minister 2017 was an injury ravaged campaign with all of Sam Tomkins, Dom Manfredi, Oliver Gildart, Ben Flower, Joel Tomkins, John Bateman and of course the permanently crocked Sean O’Loughlin spending significant amounts of time on the treatment table. That allowed youngsters like Tom Davies, Liam Forysth and Liam Marshall to come through and gain first team experience which will be invaluable to them for the challenge ahead. Yet it also placed too much of a burden on the puddings in the squad, with Taulima Tautai, copy and paste’s Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Willie Isa perhaps not of the required quality that is synonymous with the name on the badge. Yet this is a squad which it should be remembered is still the World Club Champions having beaten Cronulla Sharks 22-6 on home soil last February.
All those mentioned remain, with only Michael McILorum and Anthony Gelling the really significant departures. McILorum has surprisingly been allowed to join Catalans Dragons, which you hope for their sakes doesn’t turn out the way that Matty Smith surprisingly being allowed to return to Saints from Wigan did in 2017. McIlorum will be joined in the south of France by Lewis Tierney following his loan spell with Steve McNamara’s side.
Gelling needed to return home to New Zealand for family reasons and is replaced by former Wigan…no wait….current Wiga…what….oh I don’t know, he’s replaced by Dan Sarginson. You remember him? He had three decent seasons with Wigan between 2014-16, making 81 appearances and scoring 27 tries before flopping hopelessly in a one-year stint with Gold Coast Titans which yielded just six appearances. As is the tradition honoured by the likes of both Tomkins brothers, Thomas Leuluai and Joe Burgess he returns to the DW Stadium to save the man in charge of recruitment from having to think too hard. This being Super League, he’ll probably go ok. This being Wigan, he’ll probably get picked for England. Joining Sarginson is 20-year-old utility forward Gabriel Hamlin who arrives from South Sydney Rabbitohs. However, most of his experience is with the NRL side’s under-20s side so it may be that he is one for the future and not somebody that we will see slot straight into the side for the season opener on February 2 at the AJ Bell Stadium.
That opener is followed by the controversial Round 2 fixture with Hull FC, which for reasons best known to Ian Lenaghan’s vanity has been moved to WIN Stadium in Wollongong. The Warriors will get a weekend off after that as the World Club Challenge takes centre stage before they have to visit what should be a rejuvenated Warrington on February 23. Widnes will probably provide a gentler assignment in Round 4 before last year’s surprise package Wakefield Trinity visit Wigan on March 11. The last meeting between these two was on the final day of last season’s Super 8s when, with Wigan fans taking out their calculators to try to work out how many points they would need to win by to oust Saints from the final semi-final spot, Chris Chester’s side instead handed the cherry and whites a rib-tickling 32-0 shellacking.
With key players coming back into the fold and perhaps staying fitter for longer periods the Warriors should make a better first of things than they did in 2017. Yet there is still a major style issue particularly with their attack which has become almost as tired and predictable as a joke about Wigan in one of my opening paragraphs. Sam Powell is being tipped by many to partner George Williams in the halves this year with Sam Tomkins hopeful of a return to form at fullback and Leuluai filling in for the absent MciLorum at hooker. Powell played a lot of junior rugby in the halves but playing there in Super League is an altogether different proposition. Wane does have the option to use Morgan Escare at fullback and inject Tomkins back into the halves but the feasibility of that plan depends very much on Sam’s crumbling knees and how much he wants it versus how much he’d rather just be in the Sky Sports studio. He’s fast becoming the Jon Wilkin of Wigan, although to be fair to the crust munchers he is unlikely to get booed off any time soon. For shame, Saints fans, for shame.
So will Wigan make the four? Well obviously we hope not. Nobody wants to go through the rigours of a Super League and Super 8s season only to find that you have an away semi-final at the Pie Dome refereed by Ben Thaler who has forgotten that he is still holding his Wigan rattle as he walks out on to the field with his cherry and white whistle. However, they cannot be ruled out as there is enough quality within their squad to turn around last year’s underwhelming performance. If they cannot, it might be that Wane’s career path displays eerie echoes of that of Keiron Cunningham.