When Warrington lost 34-28 at Bradford in early May, a sixth defeat from their opening 11 games, there was one name on most people’s lips.
Yes, the Wolves had lost two of their pillars up front in Adrian Morley and Garreth Carvell. Plus a player of vast experience in the crucial position of fullback in Brett Hodgson.
But for the first time since early 1997, Warrington were not being steered around the park by Lee Briers. It was a fact not lost on supporters and especially not the media.
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Whether fairly or not, questions were being asked about whether the Wolves – three times Challenge Cup winners since 2009 and Grand Finalists for the last two seasons – had what it takes to overcome the loss of such a long-standing talisman.
Fast-forward four months, and those questions have largely evaporated. With four players filling the two halfback roles, Tony Smith’s side put together a 10-match winning run that has put them firmly back in the “contending for silverware” category.
At different stages, Chris Bridge, Richie Myler, Gareth O’Brien and Stefan Ratchford have all stepped forward to help signal a new era at the club.
Smith, as you would expect from a coach, had faith that would be the case.
“It was a bit of a shock to start with, but I felt that we had some capable personnel within our ranks that were ready to step up and get into the levels that Lee finished with,” Smith explained.
“I was confident that we were pretty well covered because we had a lot of options there.”
Smith made a further, highly pertinent point about the time at which long-established players retire. It is something that happened at other clubs, most notably St Helens, who lost the likes of Sculthorpe, Cunningham and Long within a short space of time. Observers can expect their replacements, most often significantly younger, to be at the same level immediately.
But Briers had grown into his influential role with the Wolves over several years – he wasn’t always the complete halfback he became in the latter stages of his career. A much fairer comparison would be with how he stacked up against say Ratchford or Myler at the same age – 26 and 24 respectively.
The players themselves were certainly aware of the situation they found themselves in at the start of the season.
“It was something we had to adapt to,” says Ratchford, who has impressed all season whether playing in the halves, centre or fullback.
“As good as a player Briersy was, and as much as we knew we were going to miss him, it wasn’t just him that was leaving. Moz went, Gaz Carvell and Brett Hodgson as well – we lost a lot of good quality players. We spoke about having to adapt to a lot of changes, not just that one change.
“Lee Briers had been so influential for 17 or 18 years and you can’t just plug that gap. But as a collective group, I think we’ve done a good job.” – Richie Myler
“Briersy probably was the go-to player and used to come up with a lot of special plays with the ball in hand, but we had to adapt to a lot of changes and not just that big one.”
“On top of that we had a pretty tough start to the year,” adds Myler, whose own campaign has been disrupted by injuries to date.
“Pre-season wise we had a few bad injuries and operations, then we played Saints at home who hit the ground running and Leeds the second week. It was always going to be a tough start to the year. But I think the 10-games on a bounce showed that we turned the corner, and it’s not how you start it’s how you finish.
“I think you underestimate how vital those players were in the squad. The two front rowers Gaz Carvell and Adrian Morley left as well, and they were a big part of the team. Lee Briers had been so influential for 17 or 18 years and you can’t just plug that gap. But as a collective group, I think we’ve done a good job.”
Still, six defeats from 11 games was hardly Grand Final form, and that Briers issue was always going to get brought up in the newspapers.
“I think the media can get hyped up with that sort of thing,” O’Brien, the youngest of the quartet at 22, says.
“We lost our opening games and straight away people were saying we’re missing Briersy. There was no doubt he was a very influential player over the years, and to some extent we were missing him.
“But as a group, and us as halfbacks had to come together and do something about it. We’ve got a pretty young squad now compared to last year and I think the lads have come in and done a solid job. I think we’re in good shape.”
“As I got older I felt more comfortable at halfback. When I was younger I wasn’t vocal enough, but I feel like this year I have been.” – Chris Bridge
The wildcard of the group, in some ways, has been Bridge.
One of the country’s most promising halfbacks as a junior with Huddersfield and then Bradford, he has spent the vast majority of the last few seasons at centre.
But when the Wolves were struggling for numbers ahead of a Challenge Cup tie with Doncaster, Bridge asked Smith about a positional change – in fact it was loose forward at first.
Smith went a step further and moved him into the halves, and with Myler injured at times, his experience – Bridge is now 30 – and his form with ball in hand have been invaluable.
“Because Briersy was there and Rich and Stef came in, I hadn’t played halfback for a while,” Bridge says. “As I got older I felt more comfortable there. When I was younger I wasn’t vocal enough, but I feel like this year I have been.
“I signed for Warrington as a halfback, but by chance I got moved out to centre when (Martin) Gleeson left. I just found it a lot easier at centre when I was younger, because you had Briersy telling you what to do. Now I want to get my hands on the ball a bit more. I had a really good pre-season, which I’d not had in a while, and it’s just been really enjoyable.
“The team has found a bit of form and that’s made everything a lot easier for me. Other players have been in a bit of form, and we’ve been on a run. Losing so many players it was hard to click at the beginning of the year – there was Briersy, Hodgo, Mozza and Carvell.
“That’s a lot to take out of the team, and Hodgo and Briersy had controlled pretty much everything for us, so to lose both in one go was a big loss. It was never going to happen for us straight away and it took us a while to have a good run of games.
“I think we just needed a good win, and then everyone kicked on together. Chris Hill has been immense and Matty Russell has done a real good job at fullback. Michael Monaghan and Mickey Higham have taken on more responsibility as well. Before, Monners, Hodgo and Briersy had done most of it, but everyone has taken on more responsibility now.”
Briers, for his part, remains on the backroom staff at the club, working primarily with their successful under-19s side but also helping out with the first team when required.
Ratchford explains: “We’ve probably not seen him for a couple of weeks but he does come in, and whether he sees our games live or watches them on video, he does have an input, especially on our kicking game.
“That was one of his main attributes, and he gives us little tips on what type of kicks we should be using in a certain area, things like that.”
Myler added: “The amount of experience and knowledge he’s got about the game, you’d be silly not to tap into it. I’m sure he’ll have more of an input as the year goes on, and he’s got a big role with the 19s at the moment, and the junior development at the club. I think because he’s had such a dominant role in the first team for so long, the head coach has seen that as vital. He’s really good at working with the academy players, and I know they love the work he’s doing with him.”
“If two guys are playing well in the halves, then there’s a chance for me to slot in elsewhere. The more quality players you have in your squad the better it is for your personal and squad development.” – Stefan Ratchford
It’s at this point in the interview that a smiling Smith wanders over to the table and interjects. “Are we still talking about that Briers?”
While a joke, it’s a fair point. Warrington have to look forward now, and in their 19s side, halfback Declan Patton is certainly catching the eye.
“He’s just signed first grade,” O’Brien says. “He’s a young stand-off that’s just come up, and no doubt he’s been learning things off Briersy in the 19s.
“With Dec signing that’s more competition, but us boys don’t want to give those positions up too easily and I’m sure he will be working his socks off to try and play his first game. The club’s looking really healthy at the moment.”
For O’Brien, who has spent plenty of time on dual registration at Swinton over the last 18 months in between his first team appearances for the Wolves, that means even more competition for his shirt, something that Bridge’s switch in position also provided.
“I thought with Briersy gone, I’d just have Stefan and Rich to get past! But Bridgey has come in and played really well in that spot. It’s more competition for places, but that’s good. We want all the boys playing well – no matter who’s playing we all want to support the squad.”
It certainly seems to be working for the Wolves at present.
“Four can’t go into two can it?” Myler offers. “It’s good, it’s healthy. Competition for places means that if you don’t play well you don’t play. Anything that can make you play consistently well is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes.”
Ratchford and Bridge’s prospect of making the starting 13 are boosted by their versatility, with both slotting in at centre this year and Ratchford also able to play fullback.
“I’ve kind of floated about all my career, and it’s something that TS does like in a player,” Ratchford says. “I’ve spoken to him about that. He does enjoy a player that can cover various positions, and with the competition we have here for the halfback spots, it kind of benefits me too.
“If two guys are playing well in the halves, then there’s a chance for me to slot in elsewhere. The more quality players you have in your squad the better it is for your personal and squad development.”
“When I first met him some years ago at Huddersfield he was playing stand-off. He was recognised then as one of the most talented players in the country, but unfortunately we got relegated and he left for Bradford. I think having a change in position has rejuvenated him.” – Tony Smith on Chris Bridge
Bridge adds: “Me and Stef are lucky – the other two are real halfbacks but me and Stef are more utility and can play nearly anywhere and do whatever is asked of us.
“At the moment I’m really enjoying stand-off and I’d like to stay there. But that’s why Tony is paid, to pick the team, and hopefully he can find a place for everybody.”
Talk turns to the Wolves’ title prospects this season. Grand Finalists for the last two seasons, having topped the table in 2011, it’s a favourite chant of opposition fans that “It’s always your year”.
Ratchford smiles at the song. “I don’t think there’s any added pressure from the outside – I think all the pressure and all the stuff focusing towards that is what we put on ourselves.
“The first year we got there against Leeds we probably did get a bit overwhelmed by the occasion. It was a bit ‘it’s nice being here’ and we didn’t come away with the result.
“Last year we put ourselves in a really good position to win it, but a few of the boys got injured and it just didn’t; work out for us. All the pressure on us to win it is coming from ourselves and from Tony to win it. I don’t think there’s any added pressure from the outside, it just that we want to prove a point to ourselves that we ca get there and be winners.”
Myler agrees. “We all set very high standards and we all want to be playing again at the end of the year. We’ve been there and had that taste if it, now we want to go one better. If we keep doing the right things and putting the performances in, then hopefully in October we’ll still be there.”
TONY SMITH ON…
“Whether Ratch starts at halfback or in another position, he certainly plays a key role. His versatility and his ability to slot into the halves has been outstanding for us. I’ve enjoyed watching him evolve into one of our more senior players, in a short period of time as well.”
“He’s had a disjointed year with injury and he probably hasn’t been able to get into full flow, but it doesn’t take him long when he does return. He’s 100 miles an hour, speeds the team up and is full of enthusiasm. He takes opportunities and is a fantastic support player.”
“When I first met him some years ago at Huddersfield he was playing stand-off. He was recognised then as one of the most talented players in the country, but unfortunately we got relegated and he left for Bradford. I think having a change in position has rejuvenated him.”
“Gaz has been terrific. He doesn’t get as many opportunities yet, which is down to age, experience and the stage of his career. He’s a young man who is still learning his trade and is still developing in his body. As those things started to mature he’ll certainly get more experience at the top level.”
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