Rugby Union: Wigan peer into future as Monie rings changes

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The Independent Online
Supporters used to have to wait for the start of the season in order to see clubs in a state of flux unveil all the changes that have taken place since the end of the last one.

Now, though, the combination of summer rugby and a reluctance to sacrifice the money-making potential of traditional Boxing Day fixtures means that followers of Wigan and St Helens get a sneak preview this week.

The changes at Wigan have been the more dramatic. The new board has inevitably led to the appointment of a new coach - or rather the return of an old and hugely successful one in John Monie. Whether Monie can achieve the same measure of domination for the club in his second spell has to be open to doubt. The game, and Wigan, have changed too much for that.

But he has started to wield a new broom; literally in the case of training facilities which, he says, needed a good clean-up. The combination of Monie and the money that has been made cautiously available to him has enabled some of the problem areas to be addressed quickly. Tony Mestrov and Robbie McCormack will make Wigan much more formidable in the front row, although neither will arrive in time to play in this game.

Wigan supporters will, however, get their first sighting of the third Australian to be recruited, the St George winger Mark Bell. "Wherever he has been, he has always been in the top side and he has always scored tries," Monie said. "He is not a Test player, but he is a proven first- grade winger."

The match also gives Monie the chance to run the rule over a number of players who have arrived or come to the fore since he left the club in 1993. Several will be playing for their futures at Wigan, because, now that clubs are limited to 25 full-time professionals, some will have to go to make way for further newcomers their coach has in mind.

By any other standards, Saints have also had a pretty turbulent couple of months. Of the side who lost to Wigan in the Premiership final at the end of September, Danny Arnold has gone to Huddersfield, Derek McVey has been released and Alan Hunte and Simon Booth - along with Steve Prescott, who was injured that day - have joined Hull.

It is a time of rebuilding for Saints, now that the team who won two Challenge Cups and the first Super League title have largely unravelled.

The work permits for the Australians Jamie Olejnik and Brett Goldspink do not come into effect until January, whilst Paul Davidson is suspended. So the only newcomer who will play at Central Park is the Great Britain full-back, Paul Atcheson.

Not too much should be read into the form of either club in what is, strictly speaking, only a friendly - albeit one that, because it involves these two clubs, will be particularly hard-fought.

"Cash flow being what it is, we have to play it," the Saints chief executive, David Howes, said. "Players and coaches don't like it, because it disrupts their preparation. But they like to be paid in January."