By Alan Domville
Friday brings our fourth game against current champions Wigan this season and with top five Super League positions at stake there can be no easing up on account of our Coral Challenge Cup Final against St Helens next week.
Following our brave performance against St Helens last Thursday Hull defeated Wakefield on Sunday to move into third place in the Betfred Super League table. They are level on points with us but have an inferior points difference.
We have now beaten Wigan in two league games and a cup tie this term but this match will be the first at the DW Stadium.
When the teams met in the league game at The Halliwell Jones Stadium in March we were at the top of the table and Wigan were in 10th place having initially been deducted two points for a salary cap breach before the season started and then endured a nightmare start to the campaign with just one win in five matches.
Wigan have recovered remarkably and are now just two points behind us in fourth.
In that first encounter we were without the injured Bryson Goodwin that night but we looked the better team from the outset.
Strong defence kept the visitors scoreless at the interval while Jake Mamo and Stefan Ratchford had touched down. Ratchford had converted the second and also landed a penalty to make it 12-0 at the break.
Ex-Warrior Josh Charnley raced over in the 48th minute to pile on the misery for his old club, Ratchford adding the extras, and the home defence stood firm until threequarter time when Tom Davies registered Wigan’s first points and another was awarded to Willie Isa three minutes later; Hardaker improved both.
Now it was 18-12 and Patton took the opportunity to land a field goal to calm the nerves. The winner came from another ex-Wigan star, our co-captain Jack Hughes, who crossed two minutes from time and Ratchford’s goal made it 25-12.
Goodwin was back and made an instant impact in the next game against Wigan – the sixth round of the Coral Challenge Cup early in May played at the Halliwell Jones. This was a real nail-biter but we were looking good by the interval.
Bryson crossed after just seven minutes, Powell replied and there were conversions to each by Ratchford and Hardaker respectively.
Hughes scored next, the video referee reversing the on-field official’s decision, and Ratchford made it 12-6. The teams were tied again when Tommy Leuluai scored and Hardaker converted but Daryl Clark then scored beneath the sticks and Ratchford’s goal gave us an 18-12 lead.
A Hardaker penalty reduced Wigan’s deficit to four but then Ryan Atkins touched down that made him our club’s fifth most prolific try-scorer and Ratchford converted. Dan Sarginson struck next, Hardaker goaled and there was everything to play for at 24-20.
When a Hardaker touchdown in the corner was confirmed the scores were equal for the third time in the game. The Wigan full back couldn’t convert and the last 15 minutes Wire poured everything into the attack.
And when a penalty was awarded to us when the markers moved away at the play-the-ball Ratchford no mistake and the points were ours.
Our third encounter came later in May at the Dacia Magic Weekend at Anfield Stadium. We were without Ratchford (injured against Hull a week earlier), Ben Westwood and Atkins with Jake Mamo, Tom Lineham and Danny Walker coming into the side.
There was just one try in the first half – for our stand off Dec Patton which he converted and later he kicked a penalty. Wigan had scored first with a Zak Hardaker goal and so it was 8-2 to us at the interval.
Joe Burgess scored a try five minutes after the restart and a penalty on 53 minutes by Hardaker made it 8-8.
Wire then put on the after-burners with tries for Blake Austin and Toby King and Patton added the extras to both and also kicked two penalties to make it 24-8 to us. Wigan managed a try by Willie Isa goaled by Hardaker but it was all too late for them and another penalty by Patton in the last minute made it 26-14.
In addition to the two league points, our victory gave us the Locker Cup, the trophy traditionally awarded to the winners of the annual pre-season game between Wire and Wigan, since 1938, originally the Wardonia Cup. The pipe-opener hadn’t been played since 1995.
And Blake Austin won the inaugural Mike Gregory MVP award as Man of the Match.
As the 2019 season approaches its most important stage both teams have taken steps to strengthen their squads ahead of the transfer deadline because of injuries.
We now have half back Matty Smith on loan from Catalans Dragons for the remainder of the season. Matty had two spells with St Helens and also played for Salford and Wigan before moving to France. Tom Lineham will be available again following his one-match suspension.
Wigan have signed versatile Australian back Bevan French from Parramatta Eels on a two years’ contract. Bevan, a nephew of Nathan Blacklock, has represented the Indigenous All Stars Down Under.
Wigan will be without captain Sean O’Loughlin who sustained a pectoral muscle injury two weeks ago but he may be able to return for the play-offs.
His club have had more than their fair share of injury problems this year, losing wingers Dom Manfredi (knee) and Tom Davies (ankle) for the season. Back rower Liam Farrell was missing for several months after suffering a muscle tear in the World Club Championship game against Sydney Roosters but is now back in the side as are wingers Joe Burgess and Liam Marshall who were also out of action for long periods. Forwards Ben Flower and Joe Greenwood have also been sidelined in recent weeks with injuries.
Despite having had a kidney removed Londoner Tony Clubb, now in his sixth season at the DW, is playing as well as ever.
Interim head coach and former player Adrian Lam, a Papua New Guinea international, is hoping to stay with the club for at least another year while Tommy Leuluai has been given a contract extension to the end of next season.
Among the newcomers this season former Castleford full-back Zak Hardaker has begun to rediscover his best form after a spell out of the game and is the club’s top points scorer.
Ex-Barrow forward Joe Bullock has made a remarkably successful start to his career in the top flight and French forward Romain Navarrete is also turning in impressive performances.
Sam Powell has revelled in his number nine spot this season, running from dummy half to trigger a host of attacking moves and also making a host of tackles in every game while also enjoying a purple patch is young centre Oliver Gildart.
Jarrod Sammut joined the club from London Broncos after playing a special role in their gaining promotion to Super League.
Morgan Smithies broke into the Wigan first team in March and Oliver Partington is also making an impact after appearances from the bench last year.
Second rower Willie Isa was born in Auckland but is a Samoan international.
Half back George Williams will be ending his association with the Cherry and Whites come October; he is joining Canberra Raiders and full back Morgan Escare is now playing at Wakefield on loan.