As one of the world’s most successful and recognisable rugby league clubs, expectations are always high at Wigan Warriors and, after missing out on the top four and, with it, the 2017 Super League play-offs, they are almost guaranteed to be facing last year’s Grand Finalists Castleford for a place in this year’s showpiece final. While any final is a special occasion, this promises to mean more than those which have gone before, though, as the club prepare to bid farewell to Sam Tomkins, John Bateman and Ryan Sutton as well as Wigan Warriors legend and icon, Shaun Wane.
Jamie Peacock himself explained that, in Super League, each club is restricted to the same salary cap and outlined that it is often the pursuit of a happy ending which can give a team the edge. “Sometimes it’s an emotional story behind success and often it’s players or a coach leaving,” he said recently on the Super League Show. He himself went out on a high with Leeds Rhinos winning the treble in 2015 when he, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai left the club and he admitted that same emotion will boost the Warriors. “I think it will galvanise Wigan and I believe it’s giving them the edge at the minute.”
Wane, an uncompromising forward in his playing days, announced he would be leaving the club at the end of the year in May and the club struggled in the coming games. Six losses from the next nine in all competitions is a bad run of form for a club with the standards of the Warriors and, in that, a home loss to St Helens – Wigan’s biggest rivals and 2018’s League Leaders’ Shield winners. There were clear suggestions that the revelation of Wane’s departure from the club affected the team’s performances. Indeed, the club’s longest-serving coach of the Super League era handed first team debuts to 37 Wigan academy graduates and, before taking the head coach role 2012, he was involved in the club’s academy and reserve setup before becoming assistant coach to Michael Maguire in 2010.
The Wigan team he has built is now, at the business end of the season, looking the real deal. Sam Tomkins is at his influential best as is the NRL-bound Bateman while Joe Greenwood’s mid-season acquisition looks like a masterstroke. Oliver Gildart has returned to the first team after injury in fine fettle and, just to add to the gluttony of riches the Warriors have on the wings, Dom Manfredi’s long awaited return from injury came on Friday evening when the 24-year-old crossed for two tries against Warrington in his first appearance after two years absent through injury. Their best players are available and the Cherry and Whites are now on a six game winning run – including an impressive away win over rivals Saints at the end of August.
Wane has overseen the development and building of a squad full of quality – lots of it local quality – and the vast majority of their regular players have experience of playing in big finals. In fact, an impressive sixteen players who could argue that they should be part of Wigan’s first choice seventeen have all played in a Super League Grand Final and thirteen of those have won at Old Trafford. This Wigan team have been there and done it and, with St Helens not blowing teams away in the manner they did earlier in the season, it could be argued that Wigan are working their way to being favourites to lift the silverware on 13th October.
The desire to send their popular head coach out on a high will be huge – and it would be very bold of anybody to rule out the Warriors.