Toby King on Warrington Wolves revival, ‘bad times’ and Wigan Warriors spell

After a Super League Grand Final winning season with Wigan, Toby King is relishing his return to Warrington as the club rebuilds under Sam Burgess.

TOBY KING never wanted to leave Warrington – and it looked like he would never come back.

The centre had long been a part of the furniture at the Halliwell Jones Stadium by 2022, eight years on from a debut which came four days after turning 18.

He had played 138 games and scored 52 tries for the club, including five major finals in four years, the sole success coming in the 2019 Challenge Cup Final when the Wolves upset the odds to triumph over St Helens.

Those relatively good times did not last. After a fourth top-four finish in succession, Warrington turned to Daryl Powell to take them through their glass ceiling – a move which brought more upheaval than anyone could have imagined.

Wire finished the 2022 season eleventh in Super League, one place above relegation, their worst performance of the summer era. Along the way, nine players left mid-season including stalwarts Mike Cooper and Josh Charnley. A further seven first-teamers went by its end.

King had signed a new four-year deal in May 2021. At the time, CEO Karl Fitzpatrick said: “At only 24, his best years are still ahead of him and I’m delighted those years will be with Warrington Wolves.”

Yet fast forward twelve months and it looked like he had played his final game in primrose and blue. King was among the cohort that Powell let go, first on loan to his hometown club Huddersfield for the second half of that season, and then to Wigan for the 2023 campaign.

“I just didn’t seem to fit in with the old regime. I think that was the case for quite a lot of people,” says King.

“It was disappointing at the time because we had a lot of players, like Mike Cooper especially, who bled primrose and blue. It was a disappointing way for it to end. 

“There were some bad times there. It’s a new set-up now, it’s like a completely different team to when I left it. 

“It’s been a long 18 months but I think it has been the making of me. I really loved my time at Wigan, and at Huddersfield.”

It is interesting to contrast the fortunes last season of Warrington, with those the club left behind.

The Wolves started in electric form, winning their first eight matches, before a dramatic reverse of nine defeats in twelve saw Powell given the boot. They managed to limp into the play-offs in sixth but did no more.

Meanwhile five of their rejects – Charnley, Robbie Mulhern, Jack Hughes, Oliver Holmes and Matt Davis – won the Challenge Cup with promoted Leigh while King was part of the Wigan squad (alongside Cooper, who missed the majority of the season with a serious knee injury) that won the League Leaders’ Shield and Super League Grand Final.

King missed only one game all year, scoring twelve tries in 31 appearances on his way to a first league title of his career. His form also brought England honours, having previously represented Ireland, debuting against France in April (ironically, in Warrington) and then playing the first two autumn games against Tonga as Shaun Wane’s side secured a series win.

“It was a really good season there,” says King. “I loved every minute of it. I’m really thankful to everyone at Wigan for that.

“The environment there and stuff, I won’t go into too much detail but I can see why they’re such a good club. 

“They’ve made some good signings again this year. The stuff they do on the field and off the field, we wouldn’t go far wrong if we tried doing that as well.”

The ‘we’ is Warrington – because come the end of the season there was a further sting in the tail. His loan was up and while the Warriors were keen to keep him permanently, the change in personnel at the top in Warrington meant there was a place back in the fold for King.

Having enjoyed such a memorable year at the DW Stadium, he admits to having mixed feelings about his return to the Wolves.

“The plan was to stay at Wigan. It changed and became out of my control,” he says.

“I was a bit wary coming back, with the way I left it. But I can say now, the reception and stuff I’ve got has been class. 

“I think the fans understand the reasons behind closed doors, what was going on at the club and why it didn’t work out for me here before and why I had to go out on loan. 

“I’m very grateful to Wigan for that year. It was fantastic to get the icing on the cake at the end of it (with the title). Back here now, it’s a better environment.”

Chief contributor to that change has been the new head coach that you might have heard about. Sam Burgess certainly wasn’t the safe and conventional choice to take over after Gary Chambers – who is now the club’s director of rugby – saw out the rest of Warrington’s season in the aftermath of Powell’s exit, but he has answered his early doubters in some fashion.

Working alongside Martin Gleeson, the former Wire star and one-time attack coach of the England rugby union national team, and Richard Marshall, the ex-Halifax and Salford coach who helped Justin Holbrook and Kristian Woolf win Super League titles at St Helens, Burgess has got Warrington back on form.

“I wouldn’t say he’s come in and changed absolutely everything. I think he’s just valuing the little things that we’re doing, the effort areas, our defence,” explains King.

“Him, Martin Gleeson and Rich Marshall are doing a class job in their roles. They’ve brought a lot of energy around the place. They’ve put smiles on faces. If people are happy, usually they play well. 

“I think he’s just keeping a good environment. He’s brought a real belief back in the team.

“(Gleeson) is class. He’s getting us all on the ball and pushing, working for each other in attack. But that’s just the icing on the cake. Everything comes down to your defence. 

“If you’re not defending well, attack doesn’t matter and you’re not going to score. The most important part of the game is defence and I think that’s what we’re bringing at the minute.”

The players are stepping up to the plate. With George Williams, Paul Vaughan and Matt Dufty showing all of their pedigree, and players like James Harrison, Matty Nicholson and Danny Walker displaying their potential, Wire are showing signs of being a force to be reckoned with.

King has formed a slick left-edge partnership with winger Matty Ashton, who was just beginning to establish himself as a first-team regular back in 2022. Like King, Ashton is now an England international and considered one of the best in his position in Super League.

Little surprise, then, that their reunion has been a fruitful one.

“Matty Ashton has always been a class player. If you put my grandma as coach, Matty Ashton would still be a class player,” jokes King.

“With the stuff that Sam and Martin Gleeson do with him, I think he’s taken his game to another level.

“It’s not just that fancy try on the touchline like you saw against St Helens (a gravity-defying finish off an assist by King), it’s the stuff coming out of yardage that’s massive. The team value that more than they do the finish. 

“The stuff he’s doing in the back field, his defence, his reading of play, that’s the way his game is going and that’s why he’s having such a good season.”

For Warrington overall, it’s been a very positive start. Rookie coach Burgess was handed an opening-round loss by his former mentor Steve McNamara at Catalans, and last season’s losing Grand Finalists also triumphed in the reverse on Easter Saturday, but a shock loss to Salford was their only other defeat in the first eleven rounds of Super League.

The Wolves made everyone sit up and take notice with a stunning 31-8 success at St Helens in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals – and then followed that with a semi-final thrashing of Huddersfield to set up a Wembley final with King’s recent team-mates at Wigan.

“I don’t think we’d won against a Saints or Wigan for two or three years so to take that monkey off our back, it just shows where we’re going,” says King.

“It’s a bit disappointing for the fans that, in a lot of big games, we’ve not performed. That was well overdue. 

“You’ve got to credit Saints because they are one of the best, especially at their ground. To go and do that was mega, but I’m sure they’ll still be up there at the end of the season.

“We’ve performed disappointingly against Catalans, especially when they came to our place and we went 18-0 down in the first ten minutes. That was a real dent to the ego, having that in front of our own fans. We’ve got a lot to do. It’s not perfect.”

For King, the aim for now is to get Warrington back to where they have been for much of his time at the club thus far – on a par with Super League’s best.

He adds: “It’s only early doors – I know Warrington have been here many times. There’s still loads more to do before we can be considered even in the top three. Catalans, Saints and Wigan are still the benchmark. 

“That’s the sad thing, because I genuinely think we were considered that top-three team at one point, but we’ve got a lot to do to close that gap.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

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