Ahead of Wigan’s Super League showdown with Warrington, the value of bragging rights across the boundary of Lancashire and Cheshire was not lost on anyone either side of the divide. Naturally, it was the sort of match that demanded peak mental resilience, with the losing side not only living with the shame of defeat, but also the knowledge that the match was almost certainly lost long before kickoff.
Wigan’s win against Warrington one month before the cup final gave the Warriors a psychological edge ahead of kickoff
Though it was Warrington who approached the showpiece of 2018 lumbered with a history of frustration, the rugby league odds leading to kickoff had Wigan at 4/9, creating a different type of pressure for Wigan. With the Warriors set for change in the dressing room, the ability to deal with that will be paramount in the short term.
With Adrian Lam confirmed as the head coach for 2019, the Wigan players will have experience of playing under a man with strong connections to the State of Origin series, before Shaun Edwards takes the reins in 2020. Lam’s presence on the touchline will thus ensure that the mental ability to approach matches against local (or cross-county) rivals is maintained, during a vital transitional period for the Warriors.
Lam played in the 2002 Challenge Cup final against Wigan’s sworn enemies.
As rivalries go, State of Origin thoroughly eclipses just about any that the Super League can throw up – at least in terms of the ‘purity’ of bragging rights. While there is always a place for local talent within Super League teams, money still talks, and its role as a key to success will increase year on year. The states of Queensland and New South Wales, however, represent the most genuine opportunity to claim that one geographical area with the country produces better Rugby League talent than another.
The psychological strength possessed by Lam, and his ability to motivate himself and his peers, was evident as early as 1995, in what was his first of six appearances for Queensland. At that time, the ‘Maroons’ had lost the previous three State of Origin series, and debutant Lam also had the additional stigma of being Papua New Guinean, rather than Australian.
Back in 1995, nobody gave Queensland a chance against a NSW side that contained a handsome number of international players, but a low-scoring, ill-tempered 2-0 win for Queensland in hostile Sydney turned the tide. It was in Game II that Lam came alive, scoring the last of five Queensland tries in a 20-12 win that clinched the series with a game to spare. He was solid again in Game III, with Queensland completing an unthinkable whitewash after years of despair.
Lam also captained the ‘Rest of the World’ in a 1997 match against Australia.
Though he would never win the series again, Lam’s determination never wavered, and this was especially true in the drawn series of 1999. Though he had only very recently recovered from a dislocated shoulder, Lam captained his side (in Games I and III) to a win and a draw, which enabled Queensland to retain the title won in 1998 without him.
While his worth to Wigan was obviously established during his period at the club, no coach forgets his first experience of regional representation as a player. Lam will be unique amongst other Super League coaches, having overcome adversity to triumph in a fanbase that likely cares more for local pride than international attainment. He is, above all, the ideal transitional coach leading into the Edwards regime.
The boldness of a move back to Rugby League, after years that have seen the coaching side of the game transform, is not lost on anybody – least of all Edwards himself. Ultimately, his move back into the League brand will be eased by players with a stronger mindset for the pivotal local games that could see Wigan enjoy further years of success into the new decade.