Wigan Warriors Season Preview Ahead of the 2019 season we have contacted fans from our Super League opponents, to help to give us a steer on how they see the season going for their team. And last, but not least, it’s our nearest and dearest from over Billinge Hill. We have 3 Wiganers answering the questions today, married couple Gary & Gail Featherstone and Gary Ormiston. In their own words… GO: Hello Gary here been a fan all of my 36 years and virtually had a season ticket all of my 30 years of attending games and seen Wigan all over including many trips over to Catalans. Gail: I’ve been a Wigan fan for 30 years and I’ve been a season ticket holder for 13 years. We try to get to as many away games as we can and we love doing Hospitality. Gary: I’ve been a Wigan fan for as long as I can remember. In fact, I was born on the same day our relegation from the top flight in 1980 was confirmed. Luckily, since then I have seen my club win every trophy possible. I bet if most fans who witnessed our relegation knew what fortunes lay ahead in the years to come, it would have made a bitter pill easier to swallow. As you know, Wigan went on to be the dominant team in world rugby league and, I think I was 14 the first time I actually saw Wigan lose live, such was our success after that fateful season. I have been a season ticket holder since we moved to the new stadium and we try to get to as many away days as possible. The one game I will never miss is the derby especially the Good Friday games. The one thing us Wiganers and Saints fans can come together and agree on is that there is no greater sporting spectacle than our derby, it’s something that both clubs, and rugby league in general, should be very proud of! Another season, another title for Wigan. Can you sum up last season as a Warriors fan? (Were you happy, frustrated, disappointed etc. and why) GO: Last season had many ups and downs, the biggest disappointment last year was the cup defeat at Warrington, where it seemed we didn’t want to be there. That was the three week spell around the sudden departure of our head coach Shaun Wane and some inept performances in other games. The highlight was obviously the Grand Final win followed by the Leeds away game when Sam Tomkins won us the game with the drop goal from wide and about 40m out. Gail: 2018 was a bittersweet season for me. It started and ended on a high first off taking the game to Australia and then absolutely bossing the Super 8’s and, of course, being crowned Champions again. On the other hand, it was tinged with emotion and sadness. Micky Mc had moved to Catalan and we then learned that Waney, Sam Tomkins & John Bateman would all be leaving at the season’s end. It was a fitting goodbye for them to bow out on a high lifting the SL trophy and who can forget Dom Manfredi’s GF winning tries after virtually 2 seasons out injured….? Pure magic…!! Gary: Last season for us very much felt like the end of era with so many well liked players and backroom staff announcing their decision to move on and leave the club. None was bigger than saying goodbye to our Waney. Love him or hate you, can’t argue with his record as a coach but what is rarely talked about is the faith he had in our young players and the amount of debuts he handed out during his time as head coach. I was always confident going into big games under Waney because I always felt that those lads would run through a brick wall for him. I am biased but I don’t think there will ever be a coach who can motivate a team like he could. Waney also showed his softer side towards the end of the season on a couple of occasions by letting his emotions get the better of him during interviews, this only served to cement his legend status at the club. We have always been innovators and hold many records but I never expected 2018 to be a record winning season again but taking a league game to Australia and then becoming the first and only team to win all Super 8s games, it was a great end to the season. Overall, 2018 was a good year, any year you finish as champions is good. What was great to see in 2018 was Dom Manfredi making his long overdue return from injury; not only did he return to the field but he put in a display in the Grand Final worthy of winning the Harry Sunderland Award. I think Stefan Ratchford was a deserved winner but can’t help but think had the votes been counted after Dom went over in the corner to win it for us, he would have taken the man of the match award. There had been criticism from some quarters regarding your style of play (perceived to be boring) – was this fair? GO: Our play at times under Wane was a bit grunt up the middle and barge your way over, the old five drives and a kick which led to a decrease in our crowds. Gail: I think, when you get in a negative mindset, it’s hard to see any different. A lot of fans were constantly saying we needed a kicker but Sam had 80% success rate…! The style of play may have been perceived as a little one dimensional at times but I’m sure that most fans would take that if it meant a Grand Final win at the end…! Gary: I think the criticism of our style of play originated from two different factors, one being the injuries we had in 2016 and 2017 which resulted in most of the spine of our squad either not having a decent preseason due to injury or ever actually taking to the field together. Secondly, Waney’s focus on our defence and our ability to defend our way to victory; after all, you can’t lose to a team that doesn’t score against you. I think any criticism of our style of play last season however was unjustified, we saw some exceptional tries scored and we were involved in some brilliant games. Aside from the derbies, I remember the games against Wire at the magic weekend and at home in the regular season and coming from 20 odd points behind to beat Catalans away from home. Jarrod Sammut is an interesting signing – are you happy with the recruitment as a whole (both in and out)? Is there any other position you would look to strengthen? Gail: Sammut was a bit of a surprising signing but he’s a clever little half with a great kicking game and a wide ranging skill set. If he can click with Williams, he could prove to be a very shrewd signing. We have a big squad again and some extremely talented home grown fringe players who will more than compensate for our lack of signings. I’m happy with what we’ve got…! Gary: The Sammut signing took me by surprise if I’m being honest. I watched him in play for London in the Million Pound game and was very impressed. I don’t think we were desperate for a half back so he will be great for adding competition to places and giving us that extra squad depth we require during a gruelling season. I’m comfortable with the signing and I’m looking forward to seeing him play, we’ve got nothing to lose by signing him but everything to gain. Is there a worry about Zak Hardaker being part of the squad? There’s no doubt he’s talented lad but he’s made some questionable off field decisions in the past. GO: I just hope Zak Hardaker can keep his nose clean (no pun) and get on with what won him Man of Steel and winning him Grand Finals and Challenge Cups as well as representing his country by playing rugby. He has a good head and just needs to transfer it in a Wigan shirt – plenty have never done it (Mathers being one). Gail: I’d never condone the mistakes that Hardaker has made but everything I’m hearing about him so far has been really positive. He’s a fantastic talent, a real box office player and I really hope that his stint in rehab together with being at a Club who prides itself on high standards, both on & off the field, will allow him to enjoy his time here and help him to achieve his full potential..! Gary: Losing the likes of John Bateman and Sam Tomkins is always going to be hard. Then we announced the signings of Joe Bullock, who is a beast and has gone well in the preseason friendlies, we also welcomed Greenwood into the squad who was brilliant at the end of the season. Zak Hardaker….what can I say? It’s easy to bemoan the signing if you’re not a Wigan fan and regardless of the rights and wrongs of it, I know we are getting an exceptional and exciting player. I believe we have a good culture at Wigan and one where, if he wants to succeed and show people he has dealt with his off field issues, he can. It’s clear that Zak has had his demons and I’m hoping Wigan will be good for him. He’s got every reason to succeed and with the help of Steve McCormack and, under the watchful eye of Kris Radlinski, he’ll have the right support. I think it’s sad that so many people outside of Wigan want him to come unstuck but I think that is more to do with club loyalties than actually Hardaker. If any player is having difficulties in his personal life and Rugby League can help him, then I think that should be encouraged. I think the key for us in 2019 is our squad depth, an example of this is having four excellent wingers to choose from in Davies, Manfredi, Marshall and Budgie. Lam is going to have to demonstrate some excellent man management skills to keep all our players happy. Wigan go into 2019 with Adrian Lam in charge for a season before club legend Shaun Edwards takes over. What are your thoughts on this appointment? Is it a concern that there will have been 3 Head Coaches in 3 years at the club? GO: Bringing Adrian Lam in has promised us a open free flowing rugby style hopefully he can deliver on that promise, RL isn’t the same as it was in the first 10 years of SL. I just hope Lam has time to settle as we all know he is off in under 11 months time when we bring a prodigal son (Shaun Edwards) back who will have heaps of pressure on him, SE has been away from the game for twenty years – is that too long? – only time will tell. Gail: I was a massive Waney fan – he’s a great coach and a top guy. When we learnt he was leaving, I was gutted…I thought it would be hard to find another coach with his love and passion for Wigan. Then the news broke about Lam & Edwards….2 guys who know the Club inside out, who buy into our culture and believe in the Wigan Way….we’re definitely in safe hands for the foreseeable…! Gary: In the 10 years Ian Lenegan has been in charge of the club, he has never sacked a head coach and from what I’ve seen and heard about pre-season, I can’t see Lam being his first. The squad all seem to be relaxed and enjoying the new systems. Lam is passionate about Wigan and has had some great coaching experience over in Australia so I’m confident he will go well. He’s keen to have a more expansive style of play but has urged fans to be patient with this. He’s got a tough start with games against Saints, Leeds and Sydney Roosters so it’s going to a baptism of fire for him. With regards to Edwards, its really good and exciting having one of our all time greats back at the club. Edwards is well respected for his coaching knowledge in union and I’m sure it won’t take him long to adjust back to rugby league. He has continued to be an avid fan of the club and has followed us since he left. He’ll have a couple of challenges to deal with when he arrives such as Lockers retiring but, whatever happens it’s just great that we have the legend coming home. Who should we be looking out for in a Warriors shirt this year (and why)? GO: Joe Bullock who we signed from Barrow – high things are expected of him. Also Chris Hankinson who we signed from Swinton should go well after his season being cut short last year due to the fractured eye socket he got unintentionally from Tommy Leuluai. Gail: I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what Hardaker can bring to the team but after an awesome back end of the season I’m hoping Dom Manfredi and Joe Greenwood can continue their impressive form. Which of your young players is most likely to break into the first team this year? GO: I would like to think Sammy Kibula will get more games this year, he is built like a brick ****house and will run into a brick wall given a chance. Gail: Apart from Ollie Partington and Craig Mullen, who both made their debut last season but I think will do really well this year, when their chance comes, there’s a young lad who’s just come up from the Academy, Liam Byrne. He’s a prop forward…he’s quick, strong and a real handful. I think he’ll make a big impression if he gets his debut. Gary: Like Waney, I have faith in our academy and I’m always impressed with how the young ones step up to the first team; Ollie Partington, Craig Mullen and Samy Kibula last season. In 2019, I would tell everyone to keep an eye out for Liam Byrne, he’s a big lad and has proved to be a real handful in the academy. The Super 8’s have gone and the top 4 play offs have been replaced with the top 5, theoretically giving the top place team a better chance of reaching the Grand Final – are you in favour of the changes? GO: This year we revert back to the first ever play off structure in SL which worked well rewarding the two top teams and finishing outside the Top 3 I don’t think I side won it. Gail: The Super 8s were a bit of a disaster, especially from a logistical and marketing perspective. Season ticket sales were down as fans had no idea who their team would play. Without knowing who you were playing, when & where, it was hard to plan in advance. It was also a nightmare for Clubs to market sometimes big games due to the short notice in fixtures. Top 5 play off system is a great way forward & makes teams work a bit harder to finish in that top 5..! There isn’t nearly enough accolade for finishing top so it’s good to give an added incentive/reward for the team who has been the most consistent over the season..! Gary: I’m glad the Super 8s have gone, it was well intentioned but didn’t have the impact we needed. It made it difficult for clubs to market games and fans to make holiday commitments around Super League games. I’ve always been a fan of a top 5 playoff as the higher you finish the greater reward you get. It’s only right that you get a greater reward for finishing top. It also feels like a real journey during playoff time and I can’t wait! How do you think Wigan will go in 2019? (Where will they finish, Cup run etc) Gail: Probably the most difficult prediction to make in quite a number of years….not only have we lost big game players like Micky McIlorum, John Bateman and Sam Tomkins we’re also seeing a complete change in back room staff too with Adrian Lam coming in for a year before Shaun Edwards takes the reins. I’m always optimistic, always confident and always believe that we’ll be there or thereabouts come October…! Gary: It’s hard to tell, like St Helens, we are always going to be there or thereabouts. I think how the season starts will be key and hopefully we can pick up some vital points. All the noise coming from the preseason camp is that the team have adjusted well to the changes and they are hungry to defend their Super League crown. How do you think the Saints will go in 2019? (Where will they finish, Cup run etc) Which player are you most worried about when we face each other? Gail: Although Ben Barba was a great talent & great to watch, I honestly don’t think Saints will miss him that much. There’s some fantastic talent throughout the side & I think the long awaited return of Alex Walmsley will give the team a huge boost. Couple that with the evergreen Roby, versatile Lomax and Golden Boot Winner, Makinson and you’ve got a team who are gonna cause you problems. Gary: I actually think Saints will go very well this season. It’ll be good to see Walmsley back and they’ll be desperate to go one step further than last season. Even though the Challenge Cup is down to the luck of the draw, I think it’s been such a long time since St Helens graced the Wembley turf and the pain of last year’s semi-final defeat to Catalan will take them to the final in 2019. Predictions GO: Top 5: Saints Wire Wigan Leeds Catalan Grand Final: Saints v Wigan Champions: Saints Cup winners: Wire Man of Steel: Trent Merrin (Leeds) Gail: Top 5: (in no particular order) Wigan, Saints, Warrington, Catalan, Leeds Grand Final: Wigan V Saints Champions: Wigan (obvs) Challenge Cup: Warrington Man of Steel: Zak Hardaker/SamTomkins/Jackson Stevens Gary: Top 5: Wigan (would I say anything else?), St Helens, Warrington, Catalans, Leeds Grand Final: Wigan v Saints – Wigan win obviously. Challenge Cup Winners: St Helens Man of Steel: What’s exciting about Super League this season is that there is so many early contenders for The Steve Prescott Man of Steel award and, with the way it is voted for changing, it really could go to anyone but you can’t rule out Blake Austin, Zak Hardaker, Tommy Makinson, Sam Tomkins or James Roby. It’d be great to see Alex Walmsley back to his best but if I had to go for an outside bet, it would be George Williams. With Lam wanting Wigan to play a more expansive style of rugby league, Williams could be the key to that for us.