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Is history repeating itself at Warrington Wolves?

The 2024 season will see Sam Burgess take on the role as Warrington Wolves head coach. The former England captain’s appointment came as a surprise to many, as despite having experience coaching in the international set-up with England and down under in Australia with his beloved South Sydney Rabbitohs, Burgess as a head coach is a novice.

At just 34 years’ old, Sam takes on one of the toughest jobs in rugby league. Warrington, as they are constantly reminded, have not won a league title since 1955. Challenge Cup triumphs in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2019 show what this club of capable, but the fans want the big one having seen their side lose the 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2018 Super League Grand Finals.

Burgess arrives at the Halliwell Jones Stadium following the tumultuous tenure of Daryl Powell. His stint in charge saw the club finish 11th in 2022, before he was sacked after a disastrous run of form in the last campaign saw Warrington nearly miss out on the play-offs after winning their first eight matches. There is no doubt that Sam’s first top job in rugby league is going to be a tough one.

Expectancy at the top from millionaire owner Simon Moran brings its own pressure, but it’s not the first time Moran has overseen the tenure of a young coach. Sam follows in the footsteps of Paul Cullen in taking charge of the Wire while still being in his thirties. Back in 2002, a 39-year-old Cullen surprisingly found himself in charge of his boyhood club after two years at Whitehaven.

Much like Burgess, there was high expectation due to his achievements during his playing days, albeit different in that Cullen was more idolised locally rather than nationally. A player for 17 years at Warrington, including three as an assistant coach following retirement, Cullen made his way back down from Cumbria to try save his boyhood club after a disastrous season – taking on potentially similar challenges to the ones Burgess faces upon his arrival in Cheshire.

In a short amount of time, Cullen did just enough to keep the Wire afloat that season, finishing three points above relegated Salford. That gave him a clean slate the following campaign and he slowly got the Wolves moving in the right direction.

The following few years saw Warrington begin to sniff around the play-off picture. Cullen guided the club to a sixth-place finish in 2003, a significant improvement on the previous campaign as this young coach began to gain some serious momentum and respect across Super League. After a below par season in 2004, the year 2005 would prove to be a watershed year for the Wolves.

After two years, Cullen needed to deliver success and the sleeping giant of Super League needed to awaken. With a wealth of quality in the squad, results on the pitch simply had to come. And they did as the Wire battled in and around the top four, threatening the usual big hitters of St Helens, Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls.

But as the season drew to a close disaster hit, as the Wolves were struggling for fit halfbacks of real quality. It was possible for the likes of Lee Briers and Nathan Wood to play, but it was only a matter of time before their injury niggles became serious problems, and if Warrington wanted to end their long wait for a league title, they needed to act.

Cullen turned to owner Simon Moran who promised to fix the issue, but he could never have imaged that he would solve it by bringing in the world’s best player, Andrew Johns. The NRL Champion and State of Origin winner was regarded as the world’s best and was a Clive Churchill Medallist and an Australian international.

Johns arrived just in time for a seismic clash against reigning champions Leeds – one of the sides they would have to be able to beat if they were going to stand any chance in the play-offs. With a carefully managed line-up that allowed Nathan Wood to make his farewell appearance, whilst giving a Super League debut to the world’s finest in Johns, Warrington blew away the Rhinos with a sublime 33-16 triumph at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

That set them up for a fourth-placed finish and a real crack at Super League glory in the play-offs. But it wasn’t to be as they crashed out in week one, losing 40-6 at home to Hull FC. Johns then returned to Newcastle Knights and although there was a sense of a chance missed to make history, it was a period the Wire faithful will never forget and was in a large part due to ambition of the club’s coaching staff at the time.

Cullen continued to promise success and owner Moran continued to invest well, as Warrington tried again to break up Super League’s dominant sides. The year 2006 saw them slip down to sixth but get a step closer to Old Trafford in the play-offs, only for Bradford to end their dreams after a thrilling 18-17 victory at Headingley against Leeds in the previous round. Things got worse in 2007 as they missed out on the play-offs by a single point despite more big-money signings such as Adrian Morley.

Going into 2008, another off-season of big recruits again left Warrington fans excited and believing Cullen could be the man to bring success and make it ‘their year’. However, an atrocious start to the season saw him resign in May following huge pressure from fans and pundits alike. It was a sad end for Cullen who had failed to deliver the success he so badly craved for his six years at the helm.

It was a six-year spell that had everything you would expect from a young coach going in at one of Super League’s biggest clubs. Though Cullen didn’t bring the trophies to the Halliwell Jones Stadium, he certainly helped to provide some of the club’s greatest memories of modern times, including arguably Super League’s most unforgettable moment of the noughties, in the form of Andrew Johns’ signature.

As Sam Burgess prepares to get stuck into his role as head coach, there is a sense from supporters and media that his tenure could bring similar fireworks to that which we saw with Cullen at the helm two decades ago. Sam will be aiming to bring silverware back to the club, and in a dream scenario a first Super League crown, but if nothing else it’s going to be exciting for any rugby league fan to watch the goings on at the Wolves over the next weeks, months and years.

Expect to see big-name signings, memorable games and unforgettable moments with Burgess at the helm, it’s what we are all expecting and undoubtedly what Super League needs right now.

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