Opponents: St Helens
Venue: DW Stadium
A look at the Opposition
Ask me to write this a week ago and it would be very different, the sacking of Kieron Cunningham throws so many areas of this clash into doubt (see 18th Man contribution by clicking here) Under Cunningham, and I think St Helens fans agree more than most on this, their style of rugby was conservative, aiming to be error free – rather than expansive. For a side that historically call themselves the entertainers, it wasn’t very entertaining. A week on, you have one of the most unpredictable characters, never mine players, in charge of the side – Sean Long – so goodness knows what to expect.
The significant change in the background team is the Long is no longer in charge of their defence, but in charge of their attack – when I read that, I couldn’t believe he wasn’t in charge of the attack already.
Saints have struggled so far this year but they are only one place behind Wigan – they are not a million miles away and two good results this weekend (Wigan and Castleford) and they are right back in the mix. Saints have the luxury of naming a full strength squad, with the exception of James Roby – who could be a big miss for them. The return of Matty Smith is a bittersweet one for many Wigan fans, a great servant for Wigan during our most successful Super League period to date but returning as a Saints player makes it a hard one to process. Whilst I really want Matty Smith to succeed during the rest of his career, I can’t quite bring myself to write that in the context of him as a Saints player.
Wigan will no doubt target Matty in defence, when he first arrived at Wigan from Salford, he led the Opta stats for missed tackles at that point in the season. His defence improved during his time at Wigan but he was still targeted and when compared to Williams and Leuluai – Fage and Smith, could be a weak link in the Saints defence. I expect Wigan’s big men to be targeting the halfbacks more so that normal in their attacking drives.
Which Saints turn up, a continuation of the safe playing side we have seen this year or a direct reflection of their acting coach, Sean Long – attacking, unpredictable and very good at getting one over Wigan?
The St Helens 19 Man Squad:
1 Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Adam Walker, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Tommy Lee, 19. Greg Richards, 20. Morgan Knowles, 28. Regan Grace, 36. Zeb Taia.
Talking to Saintsrlfc.com, Jamal Lolesi, who will be joining Long in coaching Saints said:
“The events of the last couple of days have been sad and hard as KC is such a good person who has given 24 years of his life to the club. It was hard for everyone at the club, the chairman Eamonn McManus and Chief Exec Mike Rush.
“Results haven’t been what we have wanted them to be – we haven’t been good enough and that includes myself and the playing group. No one was working harder than Kez to turn it around but it didn’t work out. We all have to take some responsibility for what happened over the course of the season.
“The players were visibly upset but understand it is a business and the show must go on. We face a tough game on Friday.
“I wouldn’t think they need any motivation for the game. They have always been good tussles. Our role is to make sure the players understand their roles and we give them a nice gameplan to go and get the win.
“If I was playing I would have preferred to have a tough game after what has happened and Wigan, and then Cas, it doesn’t get any harder than that. It will be a good test of the squad and the players. We will get a look at who wants to stand up and fight for the badge.”
He continued: “It is quite hard to change this things in a week. It’s unfair to say you can come in and play a totally different style. Changes like that don’t happen in a week. Myself, Sean and Derek are there to make sure they are focused on the game coming up. We want no confusion and a nice and simple gameplan which we can go out and try and execute the best we can.
“We haven’t changed a whole lot, only a couple of things that will allow the guys to get more momentum coming out of the back end of the field – and get us up the other end and score some points.”
Wigan 19 Man Squad:
Wigan finally welcome back Mickey McIllorum to their 19 man squad, along with captain Sean O’Loughlin and winger Joe Burgess. They replace injured (Yes another injury!!) Tony Clubb, Romain Navarrete and Nick Gregson.
Thoughts on the Game
It’s a perfect, unpredictable derby. You have Wigan who are busted with injuries but with three key players returning who haven’t won in four games against a Saints side, at full strength baring Roby, shot of confidence but with a change of management. Does the Good Friday nightmare continue for Saints or do they produce one of those responses you often see in sport, when a time parts company with their manager?
In recent years Wigan have always raised their game for Good Friday, Magic Weekend and the Play Offs. It’s almost like they use Good Friday and the Magic Weekend as big game experience for the end of the year and I am hoping they do the same again this week. Last week against Castleford, Wigan were poor in both attack and defence, the first time in a long time in which both facets of their game has been poor. Back in 2015, the last Good Friday game at the DW, Wigan came into that game in poor form also but a strong defensive performance got the crowd behind them and they produced a great victory in a wonderful, full-blooded game of rugby. I expect more of the same this year and I believe Wigan will back their defence to improve and win the game. They have the player of the moment, who can do something from nothing, George Williams and a man who can score from anywhere – Joe Burgess. If Wigan keep their defence tight, then their attacking flair can prosper in this game.
Matty Smith’s game management is crucial to Saints and also crucial that Wigan prevent him from controlling the game. We have all seen games in which Smith controls them so brilliantly but we have also seen games in which he struggles to impose himself on, let’s hope for the later on Friday.
With the returning bodies and home advantage, I expect Wigan to come through this game as winners, they cannot afford St Helens to build in confidence however as on paper, they have the stronger the squad available.
The Wigan Rugby Blog predicts:
Score: Wigan 20-6 St Helens
First Try Scorer: Anthony Gelling