MARTYN SADLER speaks to Wigan coach ADRIAN LAM about the 2020 season.
To say that the 2019 season was a strange one for Wigan Warriors would be an understatement.
Adrian Lam was in his first season in charge, and at the start of the season the arrangement was that he would only have a solitary season before the return of one of Wigan’s favourite sons, Shaun Edwards, who would take over from the 2020 season.
The appointment of Lam on a one-year contract, to be followed by Edwards, had looked an interesting idea at the time, but pretty soon questions began to be asked about Edwards’ motivation to deliver his side of the bargain.
Meanwhile the Warriors lost five of their first six Super League games, as well as losing the World Club Challenge clash against the Sydney Roosters, and by mid-March last year they were near the bottom of the league and they looked in danger of being cast adrift.
Edwards finally confirmed on 15 April that he wouldn’t be returning to Wigan and suddenly a cloud appeared to lift from the DW Stadium, at least as far as the team’s performances were concerned. The Warriors were beaten at home by St Helens on Good Friday, but they won at Salford on Easter Monday and then won twice again before losing to Warrington by two points in the Challenge Cup and then travelling to Barcelona, where they were beaten by the Catalans in front of a Super League record crowd of 31,555. They lost again to Warrington at the Magic Weekend, but then won twelve out of their final 13 games of the regular season.
In the play-offs they opened with an 18-12 victory over Salford before being heavily beaten 40-10 by a rampant St Helens and then going down to a 28-4 defeat by Salford.
So it’s probably fair to say that if anything Wigan over-achieved in 2019, particularly considering their faulty start to the season.
At the end of July the Warriors signed speedster Bevan French from Parramatta, and since the end of the season they have added Jackson Hastings from Salford, George Burgess from South Sydney, Jake Bibby from Salford and Mitch Clark from Castleford.
But perhaps even more important is the fact that their three young forwards who shone so brightly in 2019, Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year Morgan Smith, Oliver Partington and Liam Byrne, will be hoping to consolidate the progress they made last year, with all three now having been given squad numbers in the club’s top twenty players.
“There has been a lot of hard work but it’s gone really quickly,” says Lam of Wigan’s pre-season.
“The team is looking pretty good. The young ones have a year’s more experience and we have secured a couple of good experienced players. We had eight players who came back the week before Christmas last year, but this year it has been a pre-season that we needed to have. We have a strong squad and we are looking forward to the season.
“Pre-season this year was different from last year. With only a twelve months contract last year I changed the whole thing around and didn’t prioritise some areas, which I have done this year. The pre-season has been a little easier and the players are picking things up a lot better.”
So far, before Sunday’s game against Leeds, the Warriors are coming into the season with only one significant injury worry, after Oliver Gildart dislocated his shoulder on the Great Britain tour.
“Gildart will not play until the end of March, by round eight or nine. Apart from that, we have had a few niggling injuries, but everyone should be fit and good to go for round one,” says Lam, who is contemplating how he will handle Gildart’s absence.
“I have something in mind, and we’ve trained over the last couple of weeks with Zak at centre, because of course Bevan French is a very capable fullback.
“In fact French can play anywhere in the backs. He has been quite versatile and has done a very good job in every position. Against Leeds he may start at fullback and we’ll see how he progresses from there.”
But can Wigan’s young forwards repeat their success of 2019?
“I’m expecting them to be better,” says Lam.
“At about 20 Super League games a player reaches a different level as opposed to his first year in and they have all played 20 games now. And we have others coming through. Ethan Havard will be there and Harry Smith is a young halfback who I’ve been impressed with.
“We have brought about 13 players up from our Academy squad. We cut half the squad from last year and have moved some players on, topping up the squad with youth. We do have a top end age-group and a bottom end but not much in the middle. So they will all play a part. They are in a very good system here and they understand that their role is to get better.”
The really crucial change at the Warriors, however, is the departure of George Williams and his replacement by Jackson Hastings. Hastings brings different skills to those of Williams, while the former Salford star was undoubtedly the leading man at the Red Devils in a way that is unlikely to be repeated at Wigan.
“Both players have their individual strengths,” says Lam.
“George was instinctive whereas Hastings is more of a seven player. We have a particular way we want to play and Hastings is aware of that.
“We have had a few conversations with him about his role at Wigan compared to Salford. He is smart enough to understand that the two clubs are completely different. Here we share the responsibility of how we play and he is fitting into that groove very well at the moment.
“We are asking him to play his part and add little things as the season goes on and he has bought really well into it. Obviously his reputation preceded him. He is a strong talker and he has brought that to the club.”
One thing that’s noticeable about Wigan is the amount of speed and the number of wingers they have in their squad, with Joe Burgess, Liam Marshall, Dom Manfredi, Bevan French and the recently recruited Jake Bibby.
“We also have Tom Davies on loan to the Catalans,” points out Lam.
“Dom missed most of last year with a knee reconstruction. So Burgess and Marshall will start, and hopefully Dom will be ready by round 1. And Jake Bibby has been training as a centre.”
Also notable at Wigan this season is that newcomer George Burgess has taken the number ten shirt previously occupied by Ben Flower, who will play at squad number 14 in 2020.
“Ben has been here for nine years,” says Lam.
“We love him here, and I have had a meeting telling him how important he is. When Ben is at his best Wigan are at our best. He has had a couple of niggling injuries in the off-season but we will do everything we can to ensure he is happy here.
“George is an international prop. He is one of the great props in the NRL and he understands how to win big games. He was part of the South squad that won the NRL Grand Final in 2015.
“We didn’t have the biggest pack last year and we had a lot of injuries. We have a lot of young ones coming through in the front row and George’s presence there is really valuable for those younger forwards. Hopefully George will be able to play a lot of minutes and he will have a big influence on those players.”
2020 Squad: 1 Zak Hardaker, 2 Liam Marshall, 3 Chris Hankinson, 4 Oliver Gildart, 5 Joe Burgess, 6 Bevan French, 7 Thomas Leuluai, 8 Tony Clubb, 9 Sam Powell, 10 George Burgess, 11 Willie Isa, 12 Liam Farrell, 13 Sean O’Loughlin, 14 Ben Flower, 15 Joe Greenwood, 16 Morgan Smithies, 17 Oliver Partington, 19 Joe Bullock, 20 Liam Byrne, 21 Dom Manfredi, 22 Mitch Clark, 23 Jake Bibby, 24 Morgan Escaré, 26 Romain Navarrete, 27 Jake Shorrocks, 28 Harry Smith, 29 Jack Wells, 30 Ethan Havard, 31 Jackson Hastings, 32 Amir Bourouh, 33 Joe Shorrocks, 34 Kai Pearce-Paul, 35 Sam Halsall.
INS: Bevan French (Parramatta Eels), George Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Mitch Clark (Castleford Tigers), Jake Bibby (Salford Red Devils), Jackson Hastings (Salford Red Devils), Kai Pearce-Paul (London Broncos).
OUTS: Dan Sarginson (Salford Red Devils), George Williams (Canberra Raiders), Gabe Hamlin (Released), Taulima Tautai (Released), Craig Mullen (Leigh Centurions season loan), Josh Woods (Leigh Centurions season loan), Liam Paisley (Barrow Raiders), Josh Ganson (Widnes Vikings), Liam Forsyth (Leigh Centurions), Samy Kibula (Warrington Wolves), Callum Field (Leigh Centurions), Caine Barnes (Workington Town), James Worthington (Oldham), Jarrod Sammut (Leigh Centurions)
17 January: London Skolars 6 Wigan Warriors 70 (restricted game reduced to 10-a-side)
19 January: Wigan Warriors 10 Leeds Rhinos 22 (Liam Farrell Testimonial)
23 January: Leigh Centurions 12 Wigan Warriors 6
Head Coach: Adrian Lam
Assistant Coaches: John Winder & Matty Peet
Transition Coach: Darrell Goulding
Head of Strength and Conditioning: Paul Johnson
Head of Youth: Mick Cassidy
Academy Coach: Shane Eccles
Welfare and Education Manager: Tom Fitzpatrick
Head of Medical and Physiotherapy: Tom O’Malley
Senior Physio: Jack Stopford
Home Kit: Cherry and White Hoops
Away Kit: Black and Red
Alternative Kit: Yellow and Purple