What’s the secret of Wigan Warriors’ success?

Having just claimed a record fifth world club title, and riding high in Super League, we try to discover the secret of Wigan’s success.

WIGAN WARRIORS – the best rugby league team in the world.

It’s a label that, just as for St Helens last year, is fully deserved. World Club Challenge glory only confirmed that both ought to be recognised alongside Australia’s finest.

While Saints’ triumph came in front of around a thousand of their own supporters who crossed the globe to see them beat Penrith Panthers in their own backyard, Wigan were able to celebrate the triumph at a sold-out DW Stadium.

The occasion they hosted was fantastic – from big-name pre-match performances from Heather Small and Russell Watson to small details like light-up rugby posts – and the match itself more than lived up to the billing, from the first minute to the tension-filled last.

“The World Club Challenge was something we set our sights on a month before the season started,” says Liam Farrell, the only player on either side in the match to have previously won a World Club Challenge (in 2017), but this time lifting the trophy as captain of his hometown club.

“It was one of the best occasions I’ve been involved in, especially at the DW. It was just a special moment for myself, my family, and most importantly for the club and the lads.

“It was just surreal. The game flew by in a few seconds. The atmosphere from the fans and the celebrations afterwards… it was more the couple of days afterwards. You’re bumping into people and you don’t realise how many people watched the game. It was really pleasing to do the town proud.”

They have every reason to be proud, with Wigan the first side to win five official World Club Challenges in the history of the cross-hemisphere competition.

A lot of attention afterwards was focused on two key officiating decisions, both of which went in Wigan’s favour. But to call their success ‘lucky’ in any way would be to do them a gross disservice.

This is simply a team that knows how to win. They showed it before becoming world champions, and they have shown it since.

At the time of writing, they have won 16 consecutive matches in all competitions. Their last defeat was in the Challenge Cup semi-finals last July, to Hull KR. Their last Super League defeat was two weeks earlier, at Wakefield. As both came in golden-point, they are unbeaten in 80 minutes since early June – nine-and-a-half months.

It was Saints who bested them then and, by the time you read this, their greatest rivals may well have knocked them down a peg in the Good Friday derby. Regardless, it is an incredible run that they have been on.

And while they have won many games by a handsome margin in this time – 64-6, 34-0, 50-0, 48-6, 42-12, 60-22 – they’ve also won some by very tight margins.

In the off-season, head coach Matt Peet was asked which moment in their winning run to the title stood out to him. His answer was the extra-time, 13-12 win at home to Hull FC, when halfback Harry Smith scored the winning one-pointer in the 88th minute.

Peet said: “Harry kicked a remarkable drop-goal from distance after having a bad night with the boot. We had to take a long, hard look at ourselves after that game. We played really poorly. We were fortunate to get away with the win and credit to Harry for coming up with the big play.

“But that week was a really important one for us. We had a long, hard look at ourselves and what we were turning out, particularly with the ball. The week after we went to Catalans and had, at that time, our best performance of the season. I think that (Hull) game was probably the biggest shift in our mindset. We were a different team after that.”

Their ability to win – however ugly – is becoming remarkable. Both their Grand Final win over Catalans and World Club Challenge success against Penrith owed so much to their defence, withstanding a huge volume of try-line pressure in both games (and becoming the first team to ever keep the opposition scoreless in the Super League decider).

They were at it again recently, trailing at Salford with four minutes to go and a man down. Their defence forced a drop-out, from which they scored the winning try, after being second-best for most of the match but simply hanging on in there.

“We’re just finding ways to win. It may not always be pretty but if you’ve got the effort and commitment to each other, you’ll always have a chance,” says Farrell.

After the World Club Challenge, Peet – whose success has since been rewarded with a new seven-year contract, with the same given to valued assistants Sean O’Loughlin and Thomas Leuluai – identified the key trait in his team: “Pure want, desire, commitment. Whatever word, it’s really caring about a game of rugby that symbolises a group of people, a town and a club.

“You don’t get that sort of commitment unless you care about one anothser. We did a lot of good stuff systematically and technically, but if you don’t have the care it doesn’t stand up to the test.”

Sometimes it feels like Wigan simply cannot lose, but of course that isn’t the case. Perhaps what makes them the best is the acknowledgement that they are not infallible. 

Despite their remarkable run of results, which earned them three trophies, there are always ways to improve.

“We know there’s going to be a point this year where we lose a game. We’re not going to go unbeaten,” says Farrell.

“We’ll just learn from it, as we would when we win a game. The aim is to keep winning, to put ourselves in good positions, but when those lessons come we’ll learn from them.”

Ask Peet what his goals and aspirations are and the answer is always the same: “get better every day”. It’s a basic mantra that has served them so well up to now, and who knows how much further it could take them?

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 495 (April 2024)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from Pocketmags.com to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone