STEPHEN IBBETSON hears how Matt Peet intends to deliver sustained success for Wigan Warriors.
IN two seasons, Matt Peet has coached Wigan to every honour available in the English game – but it has always been about far more than that.
The young coach has not only made his team champions, but developed the culture around the squad, helped to tighten bonds across the whole club, and encouraged them to go above and beyond in connecting with the wider community.
So when asked how Wigan can improve on a year which saw them top the Super League table and march to Grand Final glory, Peet’s answer is unsurprising but genuine.
“It’s not a case of topping it. We just continually want to get better, and the results will be what they will be,” he says.
“Our process stays the same. We come in every day and look at how we can improve as individuals, look at how we can improve as a staff, and look at how we can improve as a team.
“The trophies are great along the way, but we’ve got to enjoy the process, enjoy the journey, enjoy what we do.”
Speak to any player or staff member and they will tell you they do. It is evident from the performances and the results, too.
But it’s not all been success and silverware over these two years – the difficult times reveal the most about the position they are now in.
While they won the Challenge Cup in Peet’s first season, a second-place Super League finish couldn’t be converted into a Grand Final appearance as they came unstuck in a home play-off against Leeds.
Second time around, the lessons had clearly been learned as they played Hull KR off the park in the equivalent fixture, before completing the year’s journey with victory over Catalans at Old Trafford.
“There were a few subtle things we did in the run-up to the semi-final that we tweaked from the year before. Just the way we trained and how we prepared for that game,” says Peet.
“The semi-final in particular, we went in a bit more hardened, in how we handled that week off and adapted to it.
“We pride ourselves on how we learn lessons through the season and we’ll do that again this year. It’s never all straightforward, but it’s how you react to things that defines you ultimately.”
It certainly wasn’t all straightforward in 2023 either. Wigan suffered a run of four defeats in five at one stage, to sit sixth in the table with more than half the season gone.
They recovered to lift the League Leaders’ Shield, but not before seeing their Challenge Cup defence end at the semi-final stage, in golden-point at the hands of Hull KR.
That, and a shock league loss at Wakefield, also in extra time, were their only defeats after early June. But it is instructive that, of all the moments in an exceptional run-in which saw them win ten times on the spin, it is another tied game that stands out in Peet’s memory.
“I look back at a game we won in golden-point against Hull FC as a real turning point. Harry (Smith) kicked a remarkable drop-goal from distance,” he says.
“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.
“That week was a really important one for us. We examined 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 (winning 34-0).
“That game (against Hull FC) was probably the biggest shift in our mindset. We were a different team after that.”
Learning from victories as much as from defeats, in other words. With that in mind, it seems unlikely that Wigan will rest on their laurels as defending Super League champions.
Their recruitment certainly doesn’t suggest so. They’ve signed six players, three of considerable pedigree – Luke Thompson, Kruise Leeming and Adam Keighran – and three highly-rated up-and-comers in Sam Walters, Sam Eseh and Tiaki Chan.
That business, alongside a squad packed with young players on an upward curve, has led some to suggest a Wigan ‘dynasty’ could be on its way, perhaps akin to the dominance enjoyed by St Helens until their greatest rivals ascended to the throne.
Peet rightly ignores any such talk but does note: “We’ve lost some fantastic players.
“We’ve lost Toby King, an international centre and Grand Final winner. Sam Powell, a multiple Grand Final winner and part of our leadership group. Morgan Smithies, with what he did last year for us playing loose-forward, his work-rate. Kai Pearce-Paul, an international-standard backrower.
“People may lose sight of how much quality we’ve lost, but we’re very happy with the players that we’ve brought in as well. So we’ll find out how good this squad is at the end of the season, not at the beginning.”
Those four, all regulars on their Grand Final journey, have been replaced in different ways.
While Keighran slots into King’s centre spot and Powell was allowed to leave after Leeming was recruited at hooker – though both have a “different skill-set” to their predecessors in Peet’s mind – there will be a reshuffling of the pack, as it were, to make up for the loss of their NRL-bound duo.
Kaide Ellis has been slated for the loose-forward role, moving from the front row, while the coach has his eye on bringing Walters, six-foot-seven to Pearce-Paul’s mere six-foot-five, into the back row after being utilised mostly at prop with his previous club Leeds.
With England regular Thompson returning after almost four years in the NRL to lead a middle unit which will also benefit again from the return of Mike Cooper and Ethan Havard from lengthy injury lay-offs, Wigan look imposing in the front row.
“What Luke brings is a real determination to show people what he can do,” Peet says of his most eye-catching addition, a two-time Super League winner and former favourite on the other side of Billinge Hill with St Helens.
“He had some frustrations during his time in Australia. He had some bad luck there with injuries.
“He’s training the house down and he’s really added something to us. He’s experienced, he’s been around the block. Seeing him alongside our other frontrowers is really exciting.”
That includes their other two additions, Chan and Eseh. The Frenchman, 23 years old like Walters, made 16 Super League appearances with Catalans; 20-year-old Eseh has 14 to his name at Wakefield. Both are relatively light on experience but heavy on power and, from Peet’s perspective, potential.
He says of Eseh: “What stood out for me was two things. One, his attitude. He’s a front-foot player, he likes to be aggressive with and without the ball.
“The other is it seems like he’s on an upward curve in his career. He was late to the Wakefield pathway and he seems to be getting better, month by month and year by year. We’re hoping that we can continue that trajectory this year and beyond and he’ll continue to develop.
“(Chan) is another player we were drawn to, because of his style. He’s all-action, he’s got good leg speed, he carries the ball really strong and defends tough.
“We’ve been impressed with his ability to ball-play as well during training. That’s been a pleasant surprise for us. His short passing game is really good and we’ll encourage him to use it.”
The Warriors are now very well stocked when it comes to props – you could count as many as twelve in the squad. Understandably so, considering it was an area of concern during their sticky spell last year.
“It’s where games are won and lost. There were times last year where we lacked a bit of depth, we had injuries and once you get stretched there (it’s tough), the position is so physical,” adds Peet.
“It’s important to stress that we’ve got some senior forwards, like Mike Cooper and Willie Isa, coming towards the end of their careers, so some of the signings and the depth we’ve got, we’ve one eye on ’25, ’26, ’27, not just this season.
“The likes of Sam Eseh, Harvie Hill and Junior Nsemba (the Academy-produced duo who enjoyed breakthrough campaigns), they’re waiting in the wings. They’ll play a part this year but what we want is for these players to be taking over those shirts in the next few seasons. A lot of it is around our succession planning as well as just this year.”
It’s a future focus, in recruitment and player development, that has served Wigan well more often than not, and plays a big part in making them consistent challengers.
In the present, there is another big prize beyond the usual domestic fare up for grabs next month, when Penrith Panthers come to town for a World Club Challenge match that is already closing in on a DW Stadium sell-out.
The clash of champions is naturally a prospect being relished by Peet: “It’s just a really exciting prospect for us, as a group, as a team, and for the whole town as well.
“There’s so much excitement around the town at the moment. We want to make sure we give people some great memories, hopefully starting against Penrith, and then keep building momentum.”
Those memories won’t just come from the game itself, with Peet keen to ensure the club makes the most of the three-in-a-row NRL champions’ whole visit.
“It’s a chance to play against such an unbelievable organisation I have a huge amount of respect for. The way they play, the way they’re coached, the way the team’s evolved over the last few years, and based on a lot of homegrown juniors as well,” he says.
“It’ll be fantastic, not just to test ourselves against them, but to meet some of their players and staff that week, and our fans can get to know them as well.”
A lot of similarities, then, with Wigan, who appear well placed now for their own run at sustained success.