For Wigan Warriors, 2014 was a case of so near yet so far.
Wins against Leeds Rhinos and Warrington Wolves in the final league matches of the season were not quite enough to claim the League Leaders Shield, while they were always going to find it hard going to claim the Grand Final trophy following Ben Flower’s early red card at Old Trafford.
Instead both those accolades went to the club’s fiercest rivals St Helens, meaning the Warriors ended the season trophy-less for the first time since 2009.
While Warriors head coach Shaun Wane knows that things could have been so different, he admits his players are determined not to let success slip through their fingertips again.
“We know what could have happened last year if things had gone slightly differently, but the fact is St Helens’ name and not ours is on those two trophies,” says Wane.
“We are not making excuse from our end and we know things would have been different had Ben stayed on. But he didn’t and we got beat, which was really sad for us. I coach to win games and the players have the same attitude when they go on the field.
“We were close to getting those trophies, so we just need to make sure we get to those finals again.
“We need to take what happened last year on the chin, come back stronger from it and do what we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“Confidence is high already because we did finish last season strongly. Not only have we strengthened the squad with the players we have brought in, but we have all the younger guys who have a year’s more experience and maturity.
“Although we are confident, we need to deliver in games. It’s not about how well you train, it’s about winning games and we will find out how well we can do that in February.”
The new players add even more grunt to an already fierce pack that took to the field last season, with Larne Patrick joining on a season-long loan from Huddersfield Giants, Taulima Tautai making the move from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and Lee Mossop returning to the club following an injury-hit season in the NRL with Parramatta Eels.
“Larne is a talented player and most Super League clubs have been admiring him, “said Wane.
“He is a great player and I am really pleased we’ll have him in our set-up. He is very athletic and powerful and he fits the bill perfectly for the way we play here.
“Like Larne, whenever we have played Wakefield I have admired Taulima and he has always troubled us. He is a big, athletic guy and will fit in with us perfectly.
“They way we train has been a bit of a shock for him and Larne, because it is quite intense and different to what they have been used to. But they have both relished it and are already giving us so much more.
“It is great to Lee back at the club. Things didn’t work out in Australia and his first choice was to come back here, even though quite a few other Super League clubs were interested in him and there were better offers on the table, so that is great for our club.
“He really has excelled since he’s come back and he is learning more with every session he does here.”
As well the new trio joining the club, Wane is continuing to show his faith in the club’s own products by giving youth a chance. None more so than George Williams, who made his first-team debut in 2013.
The 20-year-old made three appearances in that first season and backed it up with another 23 in the last campaign. Now Wane has given Williams a major boost by promoting him to the number six shirt following the departure of the influential Blake Green, and the coach has no doubt that the youngster will be able to handle the step up in responsibility.
“It is a huge responsibility for George but it is also a huge shot in the arm for English Rugby League that we are putting a young Wigan kid, who has come through the system, in there to fill that role,” adds Wane.
“When I knew Blake was leaving I didn’t think twice about giving that shirt to George. He is ready for it and I know he will go really well because he is an outstanding talent.
“He knows he still has a lot of hard work to do but when he has got into the team he has looked like a first-team player. The way he handles himself is fantastic and, given that he is still a young man, we have a lot more to see from him.”
The Warriors have recently returned from their pre-season training camp in Florida, which is a trip they have made for several seasons. However, it has previously taken place in January, but it was brought forward this year and Wane is delighted with the results of that decision, especially when he takes into account the tough start to the season the club faces.
Following Super League games against Widnes Vikings and Huddersfield Giants, the Warriors face Brisbane Broncos in the World Club Challenge and the importance of a strong start is not lost on their coach.
“We have been going there for the last few years and this was the best camp we have had there,” claims Wane.
“It was an outstanding trip and because of the great weather we got a lot of work done outside. We are a lot further on than we were this time last year. And we did okay then, so we are confident of another good year.
“The trip was brought forward because we have pre-season games in mid-January and I wanted to have a bit more time working at Orrell before we go into those games and get into the habit of training and then playing on our own pitches.
“Although we finished last season really well, we didn’t start it well. With the new structure of the competition it is really important that we don’t do that again. And having Brisbane so early means we can’t afford to start slowly.
“We have a great start to the year and I am really excited by it. The Brisbane game is one I am desperate to win. We don’t want to go into it limping, we want to go into it a good manner, playing a confident style of Rugby League.
“If we can get a decent result against Brisbane it could really set us up for a big season.”
WIGAN 2015 SQUAD: 1 Matty Bowen, 2 Josh Charnley, 3 Anthony Gelling, 4 Dan Sarginson, 5 Joe Burgess, 6 George Williams, 7 Matty Smith, 8 Dom Crosby, 9 Michael McIlorum, 10 Ben Flower, 11 Joel Tomkins, 12 Liam Farrell, 13 Sean O’Loughlin, 14 John Bateman, 15 Iain Thornley, 16 Sam Powell, 17 Tony Clubb, 18 Warriors Fans, 19 Gil Dudson, 20 Ryan Hampshire, 22 Dom Manfredi, 23 Lee Mossop, 24 Taulima Tautai, 25 Larne Patrick, 26 Logan Tomkins, 27 Lewis Tierney, 28 Ryan Sutton, 29 James Greenwood, 30 Rhodri Lloyd, 31 Connor Farrell, 32 Jamie Doran, 33 Rob Lever, 34 Oliver Gildart, 35 Jake Shorrocks.
INS: Larne Patrick (Huddersfield Giants season loan – prop/second row), Lee Mossop (Parramatta Eels – prop), Taulima Tautai (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – prop)
OUTS: Darrell Goulding (Hull KR), Blake Green (Melbourne Storm), Scott Taylor (Salford Red Devils), Jack Hughes (Huddersfield Giants – season loan), Greg Burke (Hull KR – season loan), Sam Hopkins (Leigh Centurions – season loan), Jack Murphy (Workington Town), Ben Austin (Swinton Lions). Released: Eddy Pettybourne, Jordan James
Head Coach: Shaun Wane
Assistant coach: Paul Deacon
Director of Performance: Mark Bitcon
Head Strength and Conditioning coach: Mick Turner
Rugby General manager: Kris Radlinski
Sports psychology coach: Mick Farrell
Head of Youth Performance and U19s head coach: John Winder
PRE SEASON GAMES:
London Skolars (A) – Friday, January 16 (at Honourable Artillery Company), Leigh Centurions (A) – Sunday, January 18, St Helens (A) – Sunday, January 25, Workington Town (A) – Sunday, February 1