Josh Drinkwater on how Sam Burgess is getting him to perform and his aim for Challenge Cup repeat

JOSH DRINKWATER has iced water running through his veins but don’t let that cool exterior fool you – beneath the steely frown his heart is racing with excitement on his return to Wembley.

The 31-year-old Warrington scrum-half is famous for his inscrutable expression on the pitch but deep down he is bubbling with anticipation for Saturday’s Challenge Cup final.

“I’m an old-fashioned scrum-half, I just want the ball in my hand and I’m so focused on the job that I don’t have time to let my feelings show,” said the Aussie number seven, who has formed a seriously good combination with stand-off George Williams.

Drinkwater admits that Australian players aren’t brought up on “knockout cup footy” but after tasting cup success with Catalans in 2018 he is hooked on the game’s big day out in London.

He said: “I’ve been lucky enough to have won at Wembley, strangely enough against Warrington, so I know all about the build-up which starts as soon as you win the semi-final but it ramped up last week with the suit fittings and the media stuff, it’s full systems go now.

“Wembley is such an iconic stadium, and even though a few of us have played there before there is a massive sense of excitement. It’s such a special place to play, once you’ve been there you want to go back.

“It was unbelievable in 2018. I remember the semi-final double-header at Bolton when we beat Saints, the following couple of weeks before the final was incredible. Then of course we won which was the first major trophy for a French side so the celebrations in Perpignan were off the scale.

“Warrington won it the following year and I remember wishing I was there again, and here we are.”

Drinkwater is now in a position to pass on his experience to fellow countrymen, adding: “Some of the Australian players don’t fully understand it because it’s not something they are used to but when you start talking to them about the history, and showing some of the famous clips of incredible tries and massive crowds, they soon pick up and as we’ve got closer to the final they are just as excited as everyone else.

“Wembley is such an iconic venue in one of the greatest cities in the world, and once we go down there this week a couple of days before the game, that’s when it sinks in how big of an occasion it is.”

He might not let it show on the pitch but deep down Drinkwater is playing with a huge smile on his face ever since Warrington appointed Sam Burgess as head coach this year.

He said: “Sam sat everyone down from day one of pre-season and we had a total rethink about every aspect. Martin Gleeson, our attack coach, had a lot of input and it suits my style of play.

“I’m a bit old fashioned, I’m a scrum-half who likes to hold the ball a lot and hopefully it gives George some freedom to do what he does so well.

“That feeds through the spine and there’s a connection and combination that is working well for us.

“At Catalans under Steve McNamara he had a lot of experience coaching in the NRL and I see a lot of the same ideas and techniques with Sam. It suits my game, I understand what they are trying to do and agree with everything they ask me to do.

“Sam’s got the benefit of only recently finishing playing so he’s right in tune with the players, he’s still young so he’s very easy to get on with but he’s clearly extremely professional in everything he does and that feeds down through the playing group.

“He’s the kind of coach you want to play for. We’ve all seen what he did as a player, he’s a very passionate personality and the kind of bloke you don’t want to let down, he makes you want to play your best footy all of the time.

“When he speaks everyone listens because we’ve got the utmost respect for him. He gets that look in his eyes sometimes and you know he’s not the kind of bloke you want to get on the wrong side of.

“He gets that same expression that he had on the pitch and you know he’s serious.

“But away from the game he’s such an easy-going family guy who seems to have got a great balance between the game and outside life.

“He’s brought a smile back to Warrington, we all go into training laughing and joking and as soon as the session starts we flick a switch and get stuck in but once we’re done we all get on well.

“He works us hard but fair, it’s a very happy club and I think that’s clear to see in the way the team pulls together during games.

“Right from day one Sam said he wanted to create a new system at the club and stick to it, without changing or tinkering with it throughout the season.

“I’m sure we’ll have variations on play for the cup final like we do every week against different opponents but in the main we’re going to stick to the same process and if we focus on ourselves instead of what the opposition might be doing we’ll be alright.”

Drinkwater is fully aware of the task ahead against the Super League and World Club champions but says Warrington “fear no-one” and are going into the final with confidence.

He added: “We’re not delusional, Wigan are a great team and clear favourites. You saw what they did to Penrith in the World Club Challenge so we have to be up for it and at our very best if we’re going to beat them.

“We’re pretty confident in ourselves and we’ll come up with a game plan to get the job done and bring the cup home.

“They’ve got great players in Harry Smith, Bevan French and Jai Field and we all know what they are capable of.

“But me, George (Williams) and Dufts (fullback Matt Dufty) know what we are about too and we’re confident in our own abilities. Both sides have very strong packs and which group of forwards gets on top in this game will decide who lifts the cup.”

For 80 minutes at Wembley on Saturday, Drinkwater will be his normal steely-eyed self but all that could change at the final hooter when winners become grinners.

First published in League Express newspaper, Issue 3,433 (June 3, 2024)

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