So here we are. Play Off Time is a upon us and with a much better format that rewards each position in the league table with an advantage in some way.
The system had to change. Last year Warrington finished fourth and just had to win one game, away at Saints, to get to Old Trafford. Easy really for being four places off top. This year they are fourth again and they’ll have to beat 5th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st to become Champions. That’s how hard it should be from 4th and if they somehow achieved that, they’ll have definitely earned the tag.
Wigan’s turnaround in form from the shambles of the first half of the season has been remarkable. Make no bones about it, the first four months of the season was a debacle both on and off the field.
Luck plays its part. Getting Saints away first up following quickly by a World Club Challenge was not a great card for a new coach trying to set his stall out. Having to peak for a big game early generally brings a comedown off the back of it and losing narrowly to Hull, London & Huddersfield put the pressure right on.
We looked to be reaching the swim tide when we won away at Salford, beat Catalan 42-0 at home and then led 20-0 away at Castleford after 22 minutes.
But the bad luck struck again. Jarrod Sammut limped off at Wheldon Road and the match collapsed off the back of that. That same night Dom Manfredi went down again whilst Joe Greenwood’s concussion came to the fore. Elsewhere, Sam Powell was missing. Zak Hardaker missed a couple of games. Tom Davies foot went awry. Dan Sarginson got injured. Likewise Sean O’Loughlin. Gabe Hamlin was sent home. Not forgetting the Shaun Edwards off field shambles.
Did Adrian Lam run over a black cat and not realise it? All this around Easter at a time when you need every available body you can get.
Out of the Easter ashes though came a cavalry. Appearances for Oliver Partington, Morgan Smithies and Liam Byrne. Lam had no other choice.
It was ugly. We were being bullied time and again down the middle of the field with no control at the ruck. An 18-6 lead at Salford was reduced to a 22-18 deficit in five game minutes. A 24-4 lead at Cas was extinguished to 26-24 in 13 game minutes. Wakefield went from 0-4 down to 22-4 up in six game minutes. A 14-0 lead on the second trip to Salford was wiped out before a re-established 20-12 lead became a 26-20 deficit.
The importance now though of the last ten minutes of the Easter Monday game at Salford, followed by the subsequent two games, cannot be underestimated. Tries from Joe Greenwood & Zak Hardaker saw us nick a 30-26 win. A week later in terrible weather we hung on 27 minutes to a 6-4 lead against Cas and then we saw off London 18-8 on a dreary Thursday Night. Ugly scenes. Nothing really to appease supporters worrying about relegation but six huge points achieved.
A cup draw away at a then white hot Warrington was again rotten luck, as was that Tommy Leuluai no try in that game. The manner of defeats in the Nou Camp to Catalan and then at Magic to Warrington returned Wigan to the back foot.
At this point we are ninth and our next three games are away to Hull KR (11th), Leeds (10th) & Huddersfield (8th). No one is thinking about top five, this is all about relegation.
Let’s not forget we beat Hull KR by one point and were beating Leeds by just three when the hooter sounded. How close? Had we lost both those games we would have been joint bottom with London and a defeat at Huddersfield too would have left us solely at the foot of the table.
I’ll never forget that afternoon at Hull KR. Make no bones about it. The knifes were out for Lam. Truthfully, he was looking out of his depth and whilst I appreciated he had rotten luck earlier in the season, the line was close to being drawn. Certainly in the eyes of supporters.
With twenty minutes to go Wigan trailed 18-14 and our producer on the radio was updating us on our other Wish FM commentary down in London which remarkably was seeing Saints losing.
Then at 4:15pm came a 40/20 from Sam Powell. “Great Play” said Local Journalist Phil Wilkinson on twitter. Whilst I don’t think we scored straight away from it, what it did do was get Wigan down field from what had been a constant territory struggle for the first twenty of the second half, in which against a good 14-6 position had seen us fall 18-14 behind.
Liam Marshall claimed a try for 18-18 and with a minute to go Powell kicked a huge drop goal to win it before adding a crucial one again a week later towards the 23-14 win at Leeds. Small margins but given the run Wigan have been on since, unbelievably massive moments in the context of the whole season.
Matty Peet returning to the coaching staff has also been big. Given the task of sorting the defence after the Nou Camp game, the impact was pretty instant. Liam Farrell returned to fitness. Tommy Leuluai stopped having spells of being desperate for energy every game. Sam Powell hits form. The shy right side that was barely contributing to the score sheet was now firing. George Williams has been racking up many points towards his man of steel nomination. Lam must have found a nicer cat.
Perhaps the biggest stroke of luck though was Taulima Tautai being exiled. A great character he may have been but the fact he only managed 7 starts in his 132 appearances must have said something about his contribution. Oliver Partington has played every single game since Tautai’s last appearance, which ironically was that match at Hull KR, and in turn Liam Byrne has got game time that he probably would not have got had Tautai still been around.
Control in defence though has been the biggest key to the turnaround. The middle of the field is stiffened up and no more highlighted by the fact that Wigan have kept Wakefield, Hull, Warrington, Catalan and Castleford try-less in first halves since our last defeat in July whilst Wakefield took 30 minutes to cross against us. Only Hull KR managed a try against us within the first half hour of game during the last seven matches.
Given all that though, it’s not like Wigan have dominated from the off. They have been tested early on quite often, a lot from their own making. They’ve almost been taunting the opposition to test them with an early try or two. Wigan though seem to thrive off defence and just grind the opponents down when it suits them.
That’ll be Salford task on Friday I feel. If they are to win, I think they’ll need to find early scores.
To be honest though I’m quite relaxed about what it is to come. The reality of the back end of this season is that this SHOULD be Saints time to win the Gran/.
Saints squad is set up to nail trophies. Lomax, Makinson, Percival, Grace, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, LMS, Amor. They’ve been around together a good few years now. The iron is hot! This SHOULD be their time.
This really SHOULDN’T be Wigan’s time. I firmly believe we are slap bang in the middle of transition. Look at our stalwarts of the last few years and, whilst some have left and come back, I can list Sam Tomkins, Anthony Gelling, Dan Sarginson, George Williams, Thomas Leuluai, Micky McIlorum, Joel Tomkins, John Bateman, Sean O’Loughlin, Taulima Tautai. Tony Clubb and Ben Flower won’t be too far away either. 12 players there who Wigan are in the process of turning over into a new era.
Add in a change of coach and that’s a lot of upheaval in the last year or two, unlike over the hill who have been more looking to add final bits to the jigsaw rather than winding back to go forward again.
Alas, some of those twelve still here, the necessary process is still not complete. That’s why this really SHOULDN’T be Wigan’s time but yet we’ve a damn good chance.
If it doesn’t end up our way, it’s not a time to get worried or worked up. After all I expect Wigan will be home to both 2019 man of steel and young player of the year next campaign.
If it does end up in Wigan success at Old Trafford again it’ll be a beautiful cherry on top of a big cake and all the hard over the years in the youth development will have been the fulcrum to it all.
I actually think though that this play off series is all about Saints. Like I said this should be their time and they should have won a major final by now. That early try decision was rotten luck at Wembley but ultimately, they produced a level of errors that was totally inadequate for the big occasion.
I actually think the bigger tone was set by them in the Semi Final. Halifax were praised to the hilt for their efforts that day, but really Saints should have brutally murdered them, like Wigan did to London 70-0 in 2013. Instead they coughed and spluttered to Wembley.
That’s why I feel that if Wigan get in the Qualifier against Saints next week that it might not necessarily be most important that we win, because we get a second chance, but that we keep Saints in a cough and splutter mode like they had against Halifax. The quality of this Saints side is not in doubt, it’s the bottle in big games that is questionable and whether they will learn from what happened in the cup.
What can’t be questioned about Wigan is their experience and know on in how to get to Old Trafford, having done so in five of the last six years. That could be our biggest asset. It’s worth noting though that every time we’ve reached Old Trafford in recent times, we’ve done from the DW Stadium.
It’ll be interesting how it all pans out but it’s Salford first. Then have no experience of the play offs but that will probably make them more dangerous. They have been marvellous in attack, but I’ll be most interested in how they deal with situations in which patience is required.
I draw similarities in Play Off Rugby from the Bobby George comment about darts “trebles for show, doubles for dough” – emphasising that 180s are great but it’s double finishes that win legs and sets and ultimately trophies. I think more often than not in knock out rugby that Attack is for show but its defence that will prove the ultimate key.
Salford this season have had games conceding totals in games of 46, 26, 24, 30, 33, 30, 32, 32, 35, 36, 28, 22 – three of those totals in losses to Wigan. The attack has been a consistent rhythm but the defence has been erratic compared to Wigan who have been keeping most teams to less than 20 for a while and have experience of winning Grand Finals by keeping teams to one try and nilling Cas in a play offs last year
I suppose in essence it’ll boil down to whether Salford can put points on Wigan’s defence, knock them off their usual game and dictate the rhythm. If they allow Wigan to dictate, there will only be one winner.
Let’s see what happens.