Rugby League: Wigan look ominously relaxed

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The Independent Online
WIGAN fans who have been trying to place bets on their side winning every match this season might be jumping the gun slightly. As the club's loose forward, Phil Clarke, says: 'The season is a marathon and we have only gone a couple of miles.' But the style in which Wigan have covered those first few furlongs is ominous.

Wigan were a club in internal turmoil for part of last season. If the comforting myth that other clubs have closed the gap on them was really true, then they were there for the taking.

This season already looks and feels quite different. There is a relaxed, joyous quality about the way Wigan are playing under Graeme West's coaching that promises a very one-sided contest, both against Widnes tomorrow and in the longer race for the championship.

It is in the nature of Wigan's continuing success that the loss of key players is always counterbalanced by the emergence of new heroes.

This past fortnight has been a vivid illustration of that. The departure of Dean Bell has been mollified by the transformation of Va'aiga Tuigamala into a centre of real promise. The permanent loss of Andy Platt, as well as the temporary loss of Kelvin Skerrett with a fractured cheekbone, is offset by the dynamic form of the new prop, Barrie McDermott.

Even more striking is the way that Henry Paul is slotting into the stand-off role, even ahead of Frano Botica's return at the end of this season to Auckland, confirmed, despite Wigan's hopes to the contrary, this week.

Paul, an even more instinctively brilliant player, if not as remarkable a goal-kicker as Botica, was almost apologetic after last week's emphatic victory over Leeds.

'It's all so much faster than I'm used to and I don't know any of the moves yet,' he said. 'I'm just playing off the cuff.'

It makes you wonderwhat Paul, who continues at stand- off while Botica is sidelined with a knee injury, will be capable of when he is fully integrated into Wigan's ways.

Not too long ago, Wigan's games against Widnes were highlights of the season. Now, the pale shadow of Widnes that survives seems to reserve its strongest efforts for matches that could conceivably be won.

This is notone, even taking into account the possibility of John Devereux playing his first match of the season, although the fading scent of old battles could lift them a notch.

A tighter contest is in prospect at St Helens, where their Western Samoan forward, Apollo Perelini, is likely to start a match for the first time against unbeaten Castleford, who are welcoming back Lee Crooks.

Sheffield Eagles and Warrington will be without suspended players for their meeting at the Don Valley. Sheffield's Mark Gamson has been banned for two matches for a dangerous tackle and Paul Cullen misses one for tripping.

The coach of bottom-of- the-table Oldham, Andy Goodway, has dropped Steve Gartland and Paul Davidson for the visit of Doncaster, who include their new signing from Featherstone, Terry Manning.

Leeds' changes against Salford, who have rejected a Widnes bid for Andy Gregory, include relegating George Mann and Harvey Howard to the substitutes' bench.

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