MARTYN SADLER reflects on the opening match of this season’s Betfred Super League playoffs.
On Thursday night, shortly before this game was due to kick off, I tweeted a message saying: “The opening match of the 2021 playoffs and it’s Wigan v Leeds. Hard to predict a winner, but let’s hope for a spectacular game with the result in doubt to the end. Both sides are capable of delivering.”
I was right about it being a hard game to predict, with the result being in doubt until near the end of the game.
But my hope that it would be a spectacular game was woefully wide of the mark. Neither side delivered in that regard. Although no one could criticise the two teams’ commitment and character, the truth is that this was a game purely for those Rugby League fans who prefer defensive slogs to attacking brilliance. And I would guess that those people are in the minority.
Wigan were, of course, particularly disappointing, failing to score a point at home for the second time this season.
During the regular season they scored fewer points than any other team in Super League, including the relegated Leigh Centurions.
It’s hard to understand why, under Adrian Lam, it should have come to this.
But clearly the Wigan supporters have grown tired of watching games in which their side shows so little ability to attack with any imagination.
Last Thursday night the Rhinos always looked more dangerous than their hosts and if it hadn’t been for some handling errors at crucial times they might have won the game far more convincingly.
Wigan, on the other hand, hardly ever looked threatening. Although they were as strong as ever defensively, I’ve rarely seen a Wigan side looking so meek with the ball. Their completion of their sets normally took place too far out from the Leeds tryline to have any chance of forcing a goal-line drop-out and, quite frankly, so many of their players seem to have gone backwards as an attacking threat. What has happened to John Bateman, Oliver Gildart, Zak Hardaker, Harry Smith and even Jackson Hastings, whose buccaneering spirit when he was at Salford seems to have evaporated into the wind this season?
Why has it come to this?
Why was it no real surprise to see Wigan being whitewashed once again by the Rhinos?
Of course those of us who aren’t part of a club can only speculate on what makes them play in a particular way, but watching Wigan this season it’s hard not to conclude that they have been coached to take as few risks as possible.
The problem is that risk-free football is not only dour football, but it is also predictable football for the opposition.
It may suit coaches, but it doesn’t necessarily suit the fans, particularly those who tune in as neutrals hoping to be entertained.
And it doesn’t necessarily suit all the players, as I think we could see on Thursday night. Perhaps that’s why John Bateman isn’t standing out as much as the club probably hoped he would do when it signed him.
My advice to Wigan would now be to recruit a coach who will instil a desire to entertain into the team if they seriously want to reverse the apparent decline in support the club is enjoying.
Of course we all know that these days the crowds for play-off matches generally don’t match those in the regular season, but even so, an attendance of just 7,396 for a game between two of the three historically biggest clubs in the game is a very disappointing turnout.
Not that that will bother the Rhinos or their supporters.
Leeds took a good following to the DW Stadium and those fans will certainly have enjoyed their evening, despite the dourness of the game.
The one truly outstanding moment of the game belonged to Leeds, when Kruise Leeming lofted a kick on 50 minutes towards Jake Bibby. Richie Myler followed up the kick and just before it landed in Bibby’s arms the Leeds fullback palmed the ball back towards Ash Handley, who made no mistake in scoring the try.
It was a remarkable piece of skill by Myler that paid massive dividends and demonstrated to Wigan the sort of thing they should have been trying to do for their team.
Leeds have had a difficult season with injuries and even on Thursday night they had some key players missing, with Kruise Leeming again playing at halfback, partnering Robert Lui.
But they look like a team that will pose plenty of problems for St Helens on Thursday night.
Richard Agar has had plenty of problems to contend with this year, but his painstaking approach to constructing a side from a depleted squad has paid big dividends, and could pay even bigger ones over the next couple of weeks.