I must admit I wasn’t sure where to place Warrington this season, but that’s all changed now. With barely four months gone since another painful defeat at the Theatre of Dreams, their third in five years, and the whole Chris Sandow affair turning very sour, we wondered how all this would all affect the start of their 2017 campaign. We got a negative answer in Perpignan nine days ago, as they were very poor in losing to an average looking Catalans.
I must admit I was worried for them on Saturday night against a Brisbane side that put 40 points past Wigan 12 months ago, but they proved us all wrong. Without talisman Chris Hill and the vitally important Ben Currie, a player the Wolves and England missed massively at the end of last season, the bookies had the Broncos big favourites, but how wrong they were!
Tony Smith could call on one player missing at Catalans, star signing Kevin Brown, and he played a key role in the fabulous win on Saturday night. He produced a great dummy to score his first try after just two minutes and he was, for me anyway, the best player on the pitch over the 80 minutes. Brown helped guide the Wolves around the park and was also very reliable in defence. A few Broncos forwards will certainly be regretting their decision to single him out as a defensive weak link. Tony Smith’s side also looked more solid with Westwood back in the side, he never takes a backward step and adds aggression to a decent Wire pack.
Surely Warrington will gain loads of confidence from an outstanding display against one of the top sides in the NRL as they lead up to a crucial game against dark horses Castleford this Friday night. Yes, it is early days, but in a 23-game regular season you can’t let the top sides get too far in front. It’s hard to pick up many places when the Super 8s starts as the Challenge Cup and some tough games get in the way, and history tells us that you only make Old Trafford from a home semi-final. Consistency is key so the Wolves won’t want to find themselves four points behind Cas at 10 o’clock on Friday night.
I must admit I thought Wigan were ahead of the rest this season, they won the Grand Final with half a squad last year and all bar Dom Manfredi will be available by the time the clocks go back. The Cherry and Whites look to have captain Sean O’Loughlin fit and they have recruited very well. Morgan Escare was Man of the Match for me in the World Club Challenge and Joe Burgess is the best winger in Super League (although I wish for his sake he would stayed down under). Tommy Leulaui is one of the best halves to play in Super League this decade, so to have him back is vital. Add to this they have the strongest pack in the competition and the champions look formidable. Elsewhere, Leeds look in transition, Hull FC admittedly will be there or thereabouts but Gareth Ellis isn’t getting any younger and Saints must do without Matty Smith for a large chunk of the season.
At the start, I called a Wigan v St Helens Grand Final if Keiron Cunningham’s men could stay in touch until Smith comes back, but now I’m not so sure. The Wire pack looked strong against the Broncos and with Currie, Hill and Ratchford to return then you have to put Warrington back in the mix. It might only be one game, but they looked the real deal as they gave Super League, that has been battered in recent years by the NRL, a real shot in the arm.
Wigan apart, no Super League side would have coped with the Wolves intensity from Saturday night and I’m sure their fans would love to put October 2013 and 2016 to rights at Old Trafford in 8 months’ time. I’m not writing Saints off, you can’t overplay enough the experience Smith has and when he returns, with the nights getting darker, his kicking game will cause others problems. As for Hull FC, it remains to be seen if they can reach the heights of last season where the heroics at Wembley cost them a top two place and ultimately a spot in the Grand Final. They’ll be up there though with the quality in their ranks and Castleford need to prove they can add consistency and find the ability to win games when not playing well.
However, after a great win on Saturday, an invigorated Warrington are right in the mix again and they are without doubt Wigan’s main challengers. Say it quietly but unlike the last one this really could be…