And off we go to Wigan. Birthplace of Kay Burley, Shaun Edwards and Limahl. Home of the Pier, Uncle Joe’s mintballs, Wallace and Gromit and the DW stadium.
We’ve spoken to three Wigan fans in Clare North and Gary Ormiston, who have both supported the Riversiders for over 30 years each as well as Mark Illingworth (who is a host of @superleaguepod, an Independent UK-based Rugby League fan podcast, covering all levels of league (superleaguepod.blogspot.co.uk)).
We thank the 3 of them for their time – read on to find out how confident they are ahead of 2020…
First of all tell us a little about yourself…
CN: I’ve been watching Wigan since I was five, so around 33 years now. My Dad would lift my up over the barrier to get into Central Park and would take a milk crate for me to stand on in the Popular stand. I was about 7-8 when he started taking me to away games and my first Challenge Cup Final was against Leeds in 1994 when I was 12. I’ve been a season ticket holder since we moved to the DW.
MI: I’ve been a Wigan season ticket holder for nearly 20 years, I go to as many away games as possible, as well as the odd academy and womens games. I try to take in the odd game as a neutral too, it keeps you slightly more balanced I find!
GO: Been watching my team Wigan ever since I was in short trousers about 33 years ago.
Sum up last season as a Wigan fan.
CN: I didn’t expect Wigan to get anywhere near a Grand Final last season, with what many would say was a transition period; new coach, big name players leaving and so on. To get to the semi final was a plus for me, but it was a disappointing end; disappointing probably because of how we played in the playoffs and simply being a Wigan fan, there is an expectation of success, rightly or wrongly. Biggest disappointment – the mess the Edwards. Less said about that the better.
MI: I saw every minute of the 2019 Wigan season in person. The best way to sum it up is like the Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, but with the really high bit closer to the end than the start. Lots of ups and downs, sometimes putting you in a spin, with a steady but steep rise, then a sharp sudden drop at the end! Obviously the young forwards coming through was a big positive. The real disappointment was all the off field mis-steps, which hopefully are in the past but you never know!
GO: Last season for Wigan went like a roller-coaster but too many dips for fans liking not helped by the off indiscretions with the Hamlin and Mullen incidents which hopefully the club will not stand for anymore and bringing the clubs name in bad light, the season changed for the better from the win at HKR and we went onto a good run after that but the play off games where we never showed up against Saints, very disappointed which I thought we would put to bed the week after against Salford and we put in a equally bad performance which I can’t describe how we wasn’t up for it, yes Salford backed by a huge following but the Wigan club should have not let the occasion get to them
We welcome Toronto into Super League for the first time, meaning we now have 2 teams from outside of the UK taking part in Super League.
So in three parts: a) What are your thoughts on Toronto’s promotion, b) would you welcome more expansion teams from across Europe and/or North America and c) what would your ideal ‘domestic’ Rugby League competition look like in 20-30 years (e.g. Toronto to still be part of the Super League structure with other expansion teams, all expansion teams to be in their own strong domestic leagues, UK only super League etc.)
CN: I think it’s fantastic that Toronto are in Super League and I honestly wish them success and hope they stick around. The club have done more in terms of promoting the games than some clubs have done in the last 125 years. It’s a sad fact that there are some heartlands clubs who are happy with where they are, and that’s fine, but if other clubs have bigger ambitions, those heartland clubs need to review their positions and where they see their futures.
Ideally, in time, there would be a strong, competitive North American League, but 20-30 years is a very short period. Look at how long it took Melbourne to bring one of their own through their ranks. I’m happy with any team to be in SL, from any country as long as they are competitive, have ambition and the financial backing. We shouldn’t be only allowing European clubs in what should be a global sport.
MI: a) I’m postive about expansion in general. I think the line goes ‘cautiously optimistic’. Toronto have a genuine fanbase building and have earned their place in Super League. They bring more to the competition than they take away.
b) Expansion done right is always welcome in our sport I feel. Sure, it means as a fan we can’t easily get to as many away games. But it gives a chance for our sport to get more fans overall.
c) I’ve always put forward the merits of a conference based league system like they use in North America. That way, we can expand but maintain some local competition and rivalries.
GO: It’s great that we now have a team in North America with the Toronto Wolfpack, in truth they blew it the year before against London. With them signing SBW its brought them into the spotlight even more, but I still think they are a couple of signings light to make any kind of impression. I don’t think they will be anywhere the relegation zone, probably around that mid table “table” within the 5-8th sides. We do need expansion or the game will die, would like another team maybe mainland Spain or one of the lovely Canary Islands, all year round Sun would make it ideal
How do you think the Warriors will go in 2020?
CN: Minimum expectation is top five, it would be nice to get to the Challenge Cup Final, even though I won’t be able to go as I’m at the British GP this year! It’s really hard at the start of the season to correctly predict what is going to happen, every season throws up shocks, which is brilliant.
MI: I always say success means winning at least one of the three trophies on offer. At big clubs like Wigan and Saints we have to aim for silverware. I think Wigan can acheive that with the homegrown core and exciting new signings. At a minimum, I want to be entertained by a team that play every play with enterprise and intensity.
GO: I think, at Wigan, we will always will have high standards/expectations to live up to and 2020 will be no different, we need to finish in the top two and make at least one final appearance.
Are you happy with your recruitment this year – is there anywhere you feel you need to improve?
CN: Yes, I think so. Hastings is obviously going to be the one to watch, for obvious reasons. It’ll be interesting to see how George Burgess gets on and he’s going to have to watch his on-field behaviour as he’s come over with a bit of a rep now. Where could Wigan improve? Possibly in the centres, we could be lacking if we get injuries, but it’s all part of the game.
MI: You have to be quite happy when you get the reigning Man of Steel at half back and an England player at prop. I hope our front row will show more with the ball, after they’ve been a bit too defence focussed of late. With the great academy, I never feel we lack quality depth, although experienced depth is missing a little at half and hooker. That just may mean the chance for a new star to emerge though.
GO: Recruitment at Wigan this year – we have gone big with the Hastings and George Burgess signings. Bevan French who came in the back end of last year could be good if we play him and Hastings in the halves. I’m expecting big things from these two and plenty of flair like the Edwards/Gregory days
Golden point was used in Super League last year – what are your thoughts on the system?
CN: Awful, I can’t abide it. There’s absolutely no reason why a draw isn’t a valid outcome for a game. I’ve experienced two Golden Point games and they were both anti-climaxes. Just because the NRL do it, doesn’t mean we should, even though I would like to see once and for all one set of rules for all comps.
MI: Personally, I can take or leave golden point. It loses some of it’s appeal on a cold or wet Sunday afternoon early season game, but under lights and on the TV cameras it works well as extra entertainment. If it creates more highlight moments for the sport then that probably just outweighs the merit of a drawn match.
GO: I was a fan of golden point from the off, we may have been done by it against FC but it adds excitement to the game which adds to the drama of the sport
Which one of your clubs players is the one to watch out for this season?
CN: Morgan Smithies. What a tough nut that lad is. One to love, one to hate for oppo fans.
MI: Bevan French is probably the one to watch, as long as we get where and how we use him right. He’s electric, he gets eyes on the pitch and bums off seats.
GO: I’m looking forward to see the development of Smithies and Partington who bus onto the SL scene last year and will be even better this year
Which of your young players is most likely to make a name for themselves this season?
CN: Apart from Smithies, there’s obviously Ollie Partington and Liam Byrne. I think all three could have big seasons, especially after already getting a season in the first team squad under their belts.
MI: Seeing as 19 year old Morgan Smithies already has a name for himself, I’ll put forward Harry Smith as a really promising young half who has all the tools and may find himself needed at times. Young hooker Amir Bourouh could be another who shows promise, he has a good eye for a try.
GO: Same as my last answer – Morgan Smithies and Ollie Partington
Right, can you give us predictions…
CN: Grand Final: Saints v Leeds; Champions: Saints; Challenge Cup Winners: Wigan; Relegated: Huddersfield
MI: I’ll try and be consistent with my predictions for Super League Pod. I have Saints, Wigan, Wire, Hull FC and Catalans, maybe not in that order. I think Saints and Wigan will contest at least one final this year. I’ll give Saints the Cup and be an optimist with Wigan to win the Grand Final. Hull KR are my relegation tip, they’ve had too much change and I’m not sure about their half back combos.
GO: Top 5: Saints, Wigan, Warrington, Hull FC, Catalan – The fifth spot is very tight could be anyone from Catalan, Leeds or Castleford or even Toronto but like I eluded to before, Toronto might not have made enough signings to make an impact – I think survival is key for them then build on that. The Grand Final will be between Saints and Wigan with hopefully Wigan getting the win. The Challenge Cup I fancy Hull and Warrington as it’s their best chance of silverware and they may put that as their number one target. Relegation will be between Wakefield and HKR, the Humberside outfit have signed virtually a new squad going to take a while for them to gel/bond as a team.
Who will be Man of Steel? Do you agree with the way the votes are given out?
CN: Hastings would have to play even better than last season to win it again, and I think that is a huge ask. I also think trying to predict who will win MOS is impossible! If Saints play like they did last year and Lomax stays fit, I’ll go with Lomax. I’ve no issues with the way the votes are given out, the previous way where players were voting for their mates was ridiculous! I think some fans just like moaning about any little things that happens in RL, much like the Dream Team selections. It’s really not a big deal.
MI: I had some reservations about the new Man of Steel system, but I think the shortlist including players from across the top clubs and with a forward in there has started to turn my mind around. Still, the winner will be a stand out half at a team that do surprisingly well. So I’m tipping James Maloney at Catalans.
GO: Man of Steel has had one or two changes in recent times and we haven’t found the “perfect formula”. I’m not sure how I would change it, but I was annoyed when players didn’t do Steve Prescott’s name any justice when they voted for their mate or countrymen and players that only played a small number of games. ‘You only see what your eyes wanna see’ was a lyric from a famous Madonna song and too true in watching a game of RL, I feel people on the panel have grudges against players/clubs and it showed in some of the scoring, Man of Steel in 2020 could go to Jackson Hastings but expect challenges from SBW, James Maloney, Coote and Sezer if he can reproduce his form that helped Canberra to a Grand Final.