WIGAN COACH Shaun Wane isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.
But he is good with the media and he did an impressive job of handling what could have been a tricky press conference after his side’s 62-0 drubbing at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats last weekend. There was just one sour note, when Wane made a comment about Wildcats “booking their coaches for London”. Exactly what he meant by that wasn’t clear, but the inference was Wakefield should not get too excited about their latest win.
If that was the case, the Wigan boss is wrong. All associated with Wildcats – from chairman Michael Carter to the fans on the terraces – had every right to celebrate what was an incredible victory.
To put it into context, it was Wigan’s heaviest defeat since a 70-0 embarrassment at Leeds Rhinos 11 years ago. Wildcats ran in 11 tries, nine of them converted by Liam Finn and also had four touchdowns ruled out – correctly – by referee Gareth Hewer.
This came one day short of a year after a dreadful 80-0 capitulation away to Warrington Wolves, on April 11, 2015. At that stage relegation looked, if not inevitable, certainly a strong possibility.
Wakefield survived by the skin of their teeth last year – by winning their last game of the season, for the fourth time since they joined Super League in 1999 – and a couple of games into the current campaign it looked like victory in the ‘million pound match’ was probably the best they could hope for this time.
In the week before Easter, Wakefield were bottom of the First Utility Super League table and had beaten top-flight opposition only four times in 14 months.
Since then they have strung together a four-game winning run, with victories over last year’s third-placed finishers Huddersfield Giants, treble winners Leeds Rhinos, improving Salford Red Devils and the 2015 league and Grand Final runners-up Wigan.
It is probably the best spell in Wildcats’ Super League history. Wakefield have had occasional good years, most recently 2009 when they finished a club-best fifth in the table.
But most of the time their stay in Super League has been about struggles on and off the field, with the threat of relegation and financial meltdown constantly in the background.
Even when they have been going well, they have rarely – if ever – played with the sort of style they have shown in the last four games.
Maybe new boss Chris Chester, who took over at his home-city club after being sacked earlier in the season by Hull KR, has come up with a magic formula.
Only he and the players know what has been changed during the week, but from the outside looking in it appears he has put a structure in place which suits the team and – most importantly – lifted the shackles, so they aren’t afraid to go out and play with smiles on their faces. Wildcats are being encouraged to play to their strengths and to take risks, to off-load when the opportunity arises – and it is working. Some of the rugby they played last weekend, even taking into account the fact Wigan were missing 10 frontline players, was Champagne stuff.
Possibly more impressive than their attacking display was the way Wildcats stuck to their task on defence. Their first try came after they had pinned Wigan inside their own 40 for a full set and they refused to buckle when the visitors received three successive penalties on Wakefield’s line in the final moments.
The pack, particularly the likes of Nick Scruton, Scott Moore and Anthony Tupou, dominated and created space for Jacob Miller and Liam Finn to shine in the halves.
Most encouragingly, Wakefield have unearthed two outstanding talents in their backline. Full-back Max Jowitt could well be jousting with Leeds’ Ashton Golding for an England place in a few years’ time and winger Tom Johnstone has everything needed to go to the very top.
Holding on to them will, of course, be difficult for Wildcats, but it is good to see their youth system bearing fruit. Whether Wakefield can maintain current form remains to be seen.
Wildcats will have a dip at some stage and the middle-eights is still their most likely fate this year, but this is a good time at Belle Vue and fans should make the most of it.