We must sign more players from union, says Wigan chief

The Warriors are going for the double but chairman wants to raid rival code to maintain their momentum

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The Independent Online

The chairman who will lead out Wigan at Wembley a week tomorrow believes the club will have to rediscover their old expertise at attracting players from rugby union if they are to maintain their momentum.

Ian Lenagan has presided over a Wigan renaissance proudly based on home-grown players, but he says that the net might need to be spread more widely. That would be an important change of emphasis. Wigan's history is full of significant cross-code signings, from Jim Sullivan through Billy Boston to Frano Botica, but recently the movement has been in the opposite direction, with Jason Robinson and Chris Ashton the most notable defectors to union.

But Lenagan says that it doesn't have to be that way. "I see a future where we have a lot of movement in both directions," he says. "I've the greatest of respect for rugby union, but it has become such a technical game that you need giants in the forwards. There are plenty of players out there who would be better suited to rugby league. It's just a matter of getting out and finding them."

Lenagan, Wigan-born and bred and a fan for half a century before becoming chairman three and a half years ago, still has a formula for his ideal playing squad; 50 per cent local talent, 50 per cent from elsewhere – other towns, other clubs, other countries, other sports.

"When you look at the pound against the Australian dollar, it's clear that importing players is not going to be the attractive prospect it was." Rugby union, he believes, can help to fill that gap.

It would be easy to dismiss Lenagan's theory as a piece of hopelessly optimistic swimming against the tide, if he had not delivered so promptly on the promises he made when he took over the club in 2008.

He has made it financially sound, got rid of a reputation for backstage skulduggery – particularly in relation to the salary cap – and put on to the field a side with a strong local accent that wins things, like last year's Grand Final.

"I said it would take three to five years, so it's probably fair to say that we're ahead of where we expected to be. At a club like Wigan, we should be winning a trophy a season." Rousing stuff, but it takes the right players and the right coach to turn it into reality. There is plenty of excellence in the current side, but there is no doubt that the jewel in the crown is Sam Tomkins.

"I think Sam has proved to be even better than we thought he was going to be. I'd already compare him to players like Darren Lockyer and Billy Slater, even though he's at such an early stage of his career." In a search for comparable Wigan players, Lenagan goes back a quarter of a century to Ellery Hanley and Shaun Edwards; back even further, he ropes in Alex Murphy, who coached Wigan. "That's the sort of bracket I'd put him in."

But Tomkins' eye-catching brilliance carries a danger with it. How sure can Wigan be that he will never want to follow in the footsteps of his contemporary Kyle Eastmond, who leaves St Helens for Bath at the end of this season? Could he not become part of that two-way traffic? "He has a five-year contract, he loves rugby league and loves playing for Wigan. He has five more years of winning trophies with us to look forward to."

It is debatable how many trophies the new Wigan would have won without the input of Michael Maguire, the largely unknown coach Lenagan appointed two years ago. "There were plenty of people asking 'Michael who?' but I notice that when clubs are looking for a new coach now, they are all looking for the next Michael Maguire."

Even Wigan have been forced to look for a new Maguire, as he is off to South Sydney at the end of this season. They have found his successor closer to home, in their former prop and current assistant, Shaun Wane, but will wait until after Wembley to announce it. Lenagan likes to do these things in his own time.

Maguire's legacy to the club is an overwhelmingly positive one; a winning habit, a ferocious work ethic and a wealth of developing talent. There has been criticism, though, of cynical and dangerous tactics in the tackle – not the sort of thing Lenagan wants laying at Wigan's door.

"I would worry about it if there was any truth in it," he says. "But if you look at the records of injuries in Wigan matches the charge just doesn't stand up. I think it's a case of people being a little envious."

Lenagan first watched Wigan at Wembley in 1958, beating Workington Town on a black-and-white TV. A year later, he was there to see them beat Hull. So, whatever else might be achieved under his regime, next Saturday's final against Leeds will be extra special. "I was there every time after that, including the eight in a row. The Cup is part of Wigan's history," he says. "I never dreamt when I was in the boys' pen at Central Park that one day I'd be leading them out at Wembley."

Code breakers

Rugby Union to Rugby League:

Jim Sullivan moved from Cardiff to Wigan in 1921 and racked up 774 appearances and 4,883 points.

Billy Boston signed for Wigan from Neath in 1953 and scored a record 478 tries in 485 games.

Scott Quinnell joined Wigan from Llanelli in 1994 and won the league title in his first year.

Rugby League to Rugby Union:

Jason Robinson joined Sale in 2000 after making 302 appearances for Wigan. He won the World Cup with England in 2003.

Andy Farrell scored 3,135 points for Wigan before switching to Saracens in 2005.

Chris Ashton signed for Northampton Saints in 2007. He made 52 appearances for the Warriors.