Last week, TotalRL’s Aaron Bower sat down with Wigan owner Ian Lenagan for an in-depth Q&A session. This is part one of that interview, which focusses on the Warriors’ financial health, the need to bring the excitement factor back to the DW Stadium and more. Part two later this week will look at wider issues in the game with Lenagan.
AB: Ian, how do you look back on 2019?
IL: It was a difficult year in many respects because we started so badly. But you have to have those years in order to prove the strength of what you’ve got. I don’t think the Shaun Edwards situation helped mid-season, but I think Adrian Lam has been rewarded for what he’s done since. Look at what position we and other clubs have been in regarding coaching situations. I think we’ve proven our loyalty to Adrian and vice-versa.
AB: Was it more difficult because you were replacing a hugely-successful coach in Shaun Wane?
IL: Changing the head coach is never easy, but changing a successful coach is even more difficult. We wanted to play a more open style of rugby because Wigan fans expect that, but give Shaun his due – he was here for seven years and he was appointed for one reason: to win things. After a certain period of getting used to winning, you want a little more. You want excitement on top of it. I’ve only ever appointed a head coach who has no prior experience of doing it. Brian McDermott at London, Michael Maguire and Shaun here.. and now Adrian. Not a lot of people realise actually and it’s very important. We’re protecting something that’s over 100 years old here at Wigan, something very sacred, and we want our coaches to be able to express themselves.
AB: Adrian weathered the early storm, do you believe you’ve got the right man long-term?
IL: We think so, without any doubt at all. He knows Wigan because he’s been here before. He’s a good character, he speaks well and while he had the occasional mistake in season one, almost everyone would make mistakes in their first season. He represents Wigan very well. I hate to say it, but we didn’t deserve to be in the Grand Final and we clawed our way back to within one game of it through sheer effort and endeavour. The Grand Final was a good game, and if it had been Wigan versus St Helens, it might have been disappointing because it wouldn’t have had the same public appeal than Salford getting there.
AB: In hindsight, would you have done anything differently with Shaun Edwards?
IL: No. I maintain it was worth the risk to try and get Shaun both in terms of the profile he has, and the fact he’s a born winner. It was a difficult period for us, but we’ve come out of it well in my opinion. Would I have done it differently? Well, I’d have still appointed him, and I’d have handled it the same way. Shaun had a right to decide not to come, and he used that right.
AB: Can you tell us your goals for 2020?
IL: The expectations are two-fold. There’s on-field of course, but we made a big loss off it last year too, and we don’t want to repeat that. That’s not the style that Wigan stands for, but there were good reasons why it happened.
AB: Those losses are well-documented. Why did they happen?
IL: One reason is that you can’t change players in less than two to three years. For example, last year we had made certain assumptions on the playing budget and we ended up wrong to the tune of £250,000. There were players we couldn’t get out who we wanted to get out, players that were still under contract but didn’t fit with where we were going. This year we’re doing it better, and you’ve seen over the last two months that half a dozen players have left because they don’t fit the squad. Our squad is looking a lot more like what we want it to look like now.
AB: What’s the financial outlook at Wigan now?
IL: The financial year ended at the end of November, so we actually know where we are. What was around £1.3million will come down to around £500,000 this time, and then the following year, it will be break-even at least. To come back from a £1.3million loss to break even in two years is very hard work, but we’re on target. Our season tickets and playing budget are where we expect it to be, and we’re nearly there with sponsorship. Providing all those things work, and the tickets come in as we expect them to, we’ll be more than okay.
AB: It’s no secret the Australia trip contributed to the losses – could it ever happen again?
IL: Who knows. Only one thing went wrong with that trip, and that was the ANZ Stadium game. The Wollongong game, when Wigan played Hull, met its targets and was absolutely fine. We wrongly expected – our more our Australian friends did – that a big crowd would be there. They told us 20-30,000 would be there but of course, it was much less, somewhere in the region of 8,000. That’s the only thing that caused the loss, and while it was significant in terms of revenue, if you look at the goodwill it created, it was worth doing. Super League is now well-thought-of by the NRL because they recognise the quality of the game here, and I think we and Hull were quite instrumental in making that happen with the trip. They saw what an exciting game Super League can be: it’s a lot less boring than the NRL.
AB: And on the field, what changes need to be made?
IL: We’ve tried to do three things: stay with the younger players, bring in some attractive ones – and I think Hastings, French and Burgess are examples of that – and we wanted to have bigger forwards and a bigger team. It comes back to the game against Sydney in 2014, when we were as good as them, but not as big. We sat in the lounge in Dubai on the way back and admitted the lesson we learned was size matters. There’s been a three or four-year project to get players like Joe Greenwood, Joe Bullock and now George Burgess. You could see it with Tonga.. you’ve got be able to compete in that field. While the likes of John Bateman always play above their weight, it’s much easier when you don’t actually need to. We’ve got an exciting-looking team in my opinion. I hope our supporters agree with me.
AB: You’ve mentioned the word ‘exciting’ already. Is it long overdue Wigan fans have a team they can be excited about – and has the excitement surrounding watching Wigan faded in recent years?
IL: Definitely. Just winning is not enough here. You have to be entertaining, and none of that is meant with any disrespect to Shaun Wane, because Shaun did everything we wanted him to do as the coach. But you could begin to see towards the end that we needed to play differently. Castleford played exciting rugby two years ago, and people wanted to watch them. We need the attendances to come back up again, and players like Bevan and Jackson will make a big difference. Look at Great Britain. They played dull rugby but whenever Jackson played, you were watching with excitement to see what he did. The same applies for the hooker; Daryl Clark is an exciting, edge-of-the-seat player but Josh Hodgson plays differently. It works in the NRL, but we want exciting rugby in Super League, and particularly in Wigan. It’s what we demand.