In the 1980s and 1990s, Wigan redefined rugby league. They utterly dominated the sport in the Northern Hemisphere winning eight Challenge Cups in a row as well as building up a monopoly over the league title and Premiership. They were simply untouchable and had world class players aplenty.
In many ways, they were the first rugby league team to create mega stars. Their players were treated like footballers as they walked through the streets of Wigan. The club weren’t just the pinnacle, they were miles ahead of the rest. The likes of Leeds almost pushing themselves to the point of financial calamity just to keep up with them.
Then Super League began.
In many ways, Wigan were the reason behind Super League’s creation. The sport needed a level playing field, a salary cap and a real battle at the top. Super League’s inception promised all that and more.
It worked from the off with St Helens stealing Wigan’s Challenge Cup and league title in 1996 proving the sport was about to change. No longer were Wigan going to win everything. That said, they promised to still be competitive winning the inaugural Grand Final in 1998 before finishing top for the second time in three years in 2000.
But it soon became clear that they weren’t going to be top dogs anymore. St Helens and Bradford dominated Super League at the turn of the century before Leeds even leapfrogged the Warriors in 2004, trouncing them in the Grand Final Eliminator on the way to winning their first Super League title. That defeat at Headingley signified a change in the expectations of a once all-conquering Wigan club. It was the final note in an up and down campaign which saw them lose a Challenge Cup Final to St Helens but sneak into the top four under coach Denis Betts. Although they were only 80 minutes away from making both major finals that year, there was a real sense that Wigan were falling down the rugby league pecking order.
Despite this, fans were optimistic going into 2005. They hoped that the momentum created by their play-off performances the year before could carry them to success under Betts. But this was a team in transition, recovering from the loss of captain Andy Farrell to Rugby Union, and six defeats in the opening 11 games underlined that. In that time the pre-season optimism unraveled culminating in Betts’ dismissal in late May.
In his place came former St Helens coach Ian Millward, a somewhat controversial choice given the Australian’s sacking by Saints the previous month for gross misconduct. However Millward, who had been a constant thorn in Wigan’s side whilst in charge at St Helens, arrived at the JJB Stadium as the most successful coach in Super League history, guiding Saints to Super League glory in 2000 and 2002 before defeating the Warriors in the 2004 Challenge Cup Final. Although his appointment split opinion among the Warriors faithful, there was a firm expectation that he would turn the club’s season around and make them serious contenders again.
What ensued though was nothing short of a disaster. After a hard fought win over Salford in Millward’s first game, it quickly became evident that this Cherry and Whites team was not a quick fix. Back-to-back home defeats to London Broncos and Hull FC left them firmly in the bottom half of Super League and had fans worried ahead of a tricky couple of weeks that would see them travel away to play reigning champions and league leaders Leeds Rhinos, before Millward would head back to Knowsley Road for a showdown with old rivals St Helens in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup.
Wigan fans were understandably apprehensive, but nothing could have prepared them for what they were about to see. First was the trip to Headingley. On a sunny Saturday evening in West Yorkshire, Sky Sports commentator Eddie Hemmings built up the contest for the play-off chasing Warriors and reminded the viewers that they had never failed to make the play-offs. Although the form book pointed to a Leeds win, Wigan had held a real edge over the Rhinos in recent times, but this wasn’t the Wigan we had become accustomed to down the years and it became very evident from the outset.
After surviving for 15 minutes in the baking Headingley heat, it looked as though the Warriors could hold their own, but the floodgates opened when Rob Burrow found a gap with a trademark try to set the tempo for the afternoon. By half-time it was 24-0 and when Mark Calderwood scored seven minutes into the second half, Wigan hit a new low as they conceded a further nine tries in the remaining 33 minutes. Millward’s side conceded 13 in total that day and would go on to lose 70-0, a truly woeful afternoon summed up by Hemmings at full-time who described the result as “once upon a time unthinkable.”
For Millward it was a humiliating repeat of his 70-0 loss to Leeds with St Helens a year earlier. After he described the game as “a fair indication of boys against men”, with the size of the job he had taken on with this young Warriors side started to hit home. It certainly signified the gap between the sides at the top and Wigan, and if there was further proof needed of that statement it was provided in the next game.
Just eight days after their capitulation across the Pennines, Wigan rocked up to Knowlsey Road for that ominous looking quarter-final clash with arch-rivals St Helens. After the debacle of the previous week, a big response was expected from a team that was questioned for their application and attitude. Though it was clear this Warriors side were in transition, no sympathy was offered for the lack of effort shown in the final 30 minutes against Leeds, the very minimum expectation for any rugby league players who pulls on a Wigan jersey.
Saints were big favourites, they were battling it out with Leeds at the top of Super League but they were expected to be at least challenged by Wigan. For Millward’s players the match presented the perfect opportunity to show the fans they were fit enough to pull on that famous shirt against the old enemy – this was the chance of redemption. But, as the game kicked off, it quickly became clear that the result of the previous week was no fluke.
In front of the BBC cameras, Wigan’s humiliation was taken to another level. Just like eight days previous they shipped 13 tries but this was worse, much worse, not just because it was St Helens, not just because it was a record 75-0 defeat, but the fact the club were dramatically going backwards under an experienced coach. Much like Leeds the previous week a Saints team including Wellens, Lyon and Sculthorpe were magnificent, but a deflated Millward could not hide his disappointment at the end describing the performance as “horrendous”.
Millward’s description was mild in comparison to some of the words coming from the away terrace at Knowsley Road on that Sunday afternoon. The feelings Wigan fans were experiencing had never been felt before as their two biggest rivals combined to put 145 points on them without reply in a matter of days. The club were breaking records for all the wrong reasons and where they would go from this point was unknown, with many fearing the worst.
The remainder of the season proved less painful though as Millward was able to galvanize his team to win five of their last six matches, including a victory over Leeds at the JJB Stadium. But it was too little too late as they ended the season with another unwanted record, London pipping them to the sixth and final play-off sport. It was the first time in the club’s history they had failed to make the play-offs, losing a record 14 regular season matches in the process.
This unwanted spell in the club’s history continued into the following year as things descended into total chaos. Millward’s time in charge ended abruptly after losing eight of the first nine Super League games and a relegation battle followed. It forced the club to pay the big bucks to bring in Brian Noble as coach and prop Stuart Fielden for a world record £450,000 fee. In doing so Wigan exceeded the salary cap and were later docked two points and fined £50,000, but it was a risk worth taking as they ended the season strongly to pull clear of relegation. And, as they say, the rest is history.