MARTYN SADLER talks to Warrington Wolves coach STEVE PRICE about the Wolves’ prospects for the 2020 season.
Warrington Wolves have had a relatively successful couple of seasons, reaching both major finals in 2018, although losing both at Wembley to Catalans Dragons and at Old Trafford to Wigan, and going one step further at Wembley in 2019 when they shocked St Helens to win the Challenge Cup.
But after their Wembley triumph their season petered out with one win from their final three games before they finished in fourth position in the regular season. They then went out of the play-offs in their first game, with a 12-14 home defeat against Castleford Tigers.
In 2018, their coach Steve Price’s first season in charge, saw the Wolves begin the season slowly, losing four of their first six matches. But they recovered superbly to reach the Grand Final after defeating League Leaders’ Shield winners St Helens in the semi-final, before going down 4-12 in the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
In contrast, in 2019 they began the season with eight wins from their first nine matches. They spent most of the season in second place in the Super League table, but they would win only one of the last nine matches in the regular season to finish in a disappointing fourth position, with their disappointment being magnified by that home play-off defeat against the Tigers.
Price recognises that 2019 was a mixed season for his team.
“There are only two major trophies up for grabs and we have one of them,” he says.
“We have been in three out of the last four finals in two years, but what that means is that we have played every weekend, which is inevitably stressful.
“The season can be quite difficult, and it’s fair to describe it as a marathon.
“You need to peak at the right times. We had to be at our best for the Challenge Cup Final, but we couldn’t peak again last season.
“Having to play a game on the Thursday night after winning the Challenge Cup didn’t help our cause. But that is all in the past now. We are focused on 2020.”
And Price is expecting plenty of competition in Super League next season, although he has had to prepare so far without several of his star players, who are still on holiday after autumn’s international programme.
“I suppose all twelve clubs are confident going into the new season and, like us, I’m sure they are all working extremely hard.
“At Warrington there’s a high sense of togetherness among the group and the new players are working extraordinarily hard.
“We still have all our representative players away from the club taking a break, which means we are still missing two halves (Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop) and a nine (Daryl Clark).
“But I’m happy with that, because they need to freshen their bodies up after a long season and we need to make sure they are in peak condition at the start of the new season.
“Behind the scenes it’s important that they get some rest, because those guys have been going from January to late November.
“They will come back for Christmas. In the New Year we will go to Portugal for a training camp for a week from 12 January and we’ll assess them then.
“We have a game against Salford on 23rd January, which will be Mike Cooper’s testimonial game, and that may be enough for us.
“There’s a lot of work to do between now and the start of the season. We need to work on our playing style and structures, but it all looks very promising and exciting for the club.”
For the 2020 season the Wolves’ recruitment has been limited, but the exception is Gareth Widdop, who they have recruited from the NRL’s St George Illawarra Dragons. Coincidentally it was Price who recruited Widdop for the Dragons from Melbourne Storm almost six years ago and it means that the Wolves’ spine next season is likely to be Stefan Ratchford, Blake Austin, Widdop and Daryl Clark, which is likely to be one of the strongest spines in the competition.
“In 2014 I recruited Gareth for St George from Melbourne so I know what he is going to bring to us,” says Price.
“He is a winner, a team man and a quality person. He will arrive in the next week with his family and I’m looking forward to seeing him again.
“I’m confident that he and Blake will strike up a really good combination. We will develop a strategy in pre-season and it will come to fruition by the start of the season.”
But Widdop isn’t the only new face at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
“We brought Anthony Gelling in, who has been enormous for us in pre-season, while Keanan Brand and Matty Ashton are also hitting good metrics,” says Price.
“Anthony had some really good seasons under Shaun Wane at Wigan. He has been there and done it. He had no pre-season at Widnes last year, but as you get older you get more mature. He has been an A1 performer in pre-season, driving great standards and working extremely hard. I couldn’t be happier with him.
“Keanan Brand has been doing some exciting things throughout the pre-season.
“Matty Ashton is a flier, who has added a fair amount of bulk since joining us. We are all about recruiting good people and Matt is an A1 person who hasn’t had a bad training session.
“Samy Kibula is a young 20-year-old frontrower and he’s a work in progress who has joined us from Wigan. There’s a lot of hard work in front of him, and if he continues to apply himself he will eventually have a very strong future in the game.
“Luther Burrell joined us in July and didn’t get many opportunities in 2019. But I’m really pleased with how Luther has performed in pre-season. He has dropped five kilos. He is running a lot more freely, he is understanding the game much more completely. He is training as well as we could expect.
“The leadership we have in the group is outstanding, with Joe Philbin and Jack Hughes having represented Great Britain on the recent tour.”
Like the other Super League clubs based in England, the Wolves will run a reserve side in 2020 and that may mean that Price will forgo the chance to secure a dual-registration agreement with a Championship club.
“We will have a reserve-grade team and the players who aren’t in the regular 19 will represent us in reserves. Time will tell on dual-registration, but reserve grade is our focus. At the moment we want to get players into the club who will be able to play for that team.
Inevitably Price expects to give chances to some of his younger stars in 2020.
“I’m not concerned by numbers. It’s about training and performance. Everyone will get that opportunity. They will perform to the best of their ability.
“Riley Dean and Josh Thewlis are young exciting players who will eventually get a chance at halfback and fullback respectively.
“Josh is really exciting, he has his head screwed on and he strives to be the best he can be.
“We have a number of options for our spine. During training we try multi-skill plays to encourage players to take up multiple positions. There will be a lot to play for next season.”
2020 Squad: 1 Stefan Ratchford, 2 Tom Lineham, 3 Anthony Gelling, 4 Toby King, 5 Josh Charnley, 6 Blake Austin, 7 Gareth Widdop, 8 Chris Hill, 9 Daryl Clark, 10 Mike Cooper, 11 Ben Currie, 12 Jack Hughes, 13 Ben Murdoch-Masila, 14 Jason Clark, 15 Joe Philbin, 16 Leilani Latu, 17 Jake Mamo, 18 Sitaleki Akauola, 19 Matt Davis, 20 Danny Walker, 21 Declan Patton, 22 Luis Johnson, 23 Luther Burrell, 24 Keanan Brand, 25 Samy Kibula, 26 Matty Ashton, 27 Ellis Robson, 28 Nathan Roebuck, 29 Josh Thewlis, 30 Riley Dean.
INS: Anthony Gelling (Widnes Vikings), Gareth Widdop (St George Illawarra Dragons), Keanan Brand (Widnes Vikings), Samy Kibula (Wigan Warriors), Matty Ashton (Swinton Lions), Leilani Latu (Gold Coast Titans)
OUTS: Ben Westwood (retired), Bryson Goodwin (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Ryan Atkins (Wakefield Trinity), Kevin Brown (Salford Red Devils), Lama Tasi (Sarina, Queensland), Harvey Livett (Hull Kingston Rovers – season-long loan), Jack Johnson (Widnes Vikings), Pat Moran (Widnes Vikings)
23 January: Warrington Wolves 26 Salford Red Devils 10 (Mike Cooper Testimonial Game)
Head Coach: Steve Price
Assistant Coach: Andrew Henderson
Assistant Coach: Lee Briers
Head of Performance: Ade Gardner
Head of Rugby Operations/Player Welfare Manager: Kylie Leuluai
Head of Analysts: Jack Phillips
Strength and Conditioning Coach: Chris Baron
Head Physio: Nick Murphy
Head Masseuse: Michelle Hudson
Club Doctor: Greg Lears
Home shirt: Royal blue shirt with two primrose chevrons
Away shirt: Vertical stripes of scarlet and black with a black upper chest