Wigan fit for a new challenge

Owen Slot visits a club in a league of their own who are eager for competiton
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The Independent Online
THE PLAYERS were as stunned as anyone last Saturday afternoon when they heard the most far-reaching piece of news in the 100-year history of rugby league. The Wigan players had already left training at Central Park, knowing that the League's chairmen were meeting upstairs in the vice- president's suite, but presuming that they were there to discuss summer rugby - and that seemed revolutionary in itself. Denis Betts set off to Manchester to visit his mother, and it was then that he heard it on the radio. "There it was, a bolt from the blue," he said. "Nothing has happened in the game for years, maybe a hundred years, and all of a sudden they turn the whole thing on its head."

That night, Betts went round to his team-mate Phil Clarke's house and a debate began - What was going to happen? How would it affect them? - which continued in the Wigan dressing-room the following day before the game against Bradford. The players congregated 75 minutes before kick- off as usual, but the pre-match preparation lacked its regular focus. Some were saying that wages would rise, others said they would fall, most favoured the move to summer, while the old hands on the training staff argued that the traditional fans would be lost in the changes. All, however, agreed that change was necessary. "We have had very little competition this year," said Betts of the side who had won the league championship in the previous five. "Something had to happen."

They made their point that night. They went six points down, but then, after 17 impeccable minutes when Bradford barely touched the ball, were 32 points up. After half-time they came out, still faster, slicker and stronger, and scored four tries in 12 minutes. It was no contest, and by the time Martin Hall had completed his hat-trick, Wigan had set a new record for the number of tries - 175 - scored in a league season. So they relaxed and got complacent, but they were so far ahead it didn't matter - they won 60-34 and were one victory away from another championship.

Complacency can be a problem at Wigan, as it was at Halifax two and a half weeks ago. "Before that game we felt we just had to turn up and that would be it," Betts said. "Then, when we went behind we just felt that somebody will do something, we've enough good players in our side. But we were all looking for somebody else and nobody did do anything. We lost." There was no complacency four days later. Halifax came back to Central Park and were annihilated 62-2.

Likewise, there was no complacency on Friday. Wigan beat St Helens 34- 18 and, in claiming that sixth consecutive championship, emphasised the point: a complete rearrangement of the league had far more chance than Saints or Halifax of ever knocking Wigan out of this repetitive, triumphant groove.

They have now been in the winning habit for eight seasons - a team including Ellery Hanley, Andy Gregory, Dean Bell and Joe Lydon established it when the coach Graham Lowe arrived from Australia in 1986. Lowe got them playing a faster game and instilled greater discipline and a more professional attitude. As the victories increased, so did crowds, and so did the winning bonuses. Consequently, a number of players decided they were pocketing enough from the game to leave their day jobs and become full-time professionals.

"Soon," said Andy Goodway, another of Lowe's originals, "it got to a situation where sides couldn't score tries against us. We used to `nil' sides week after week and because we nilled one side, we'd want to nil another. Then, in Lowe's second year, we got to Wembley and they've been there every year since." The success has continued, Goodway explains, because the club is replete with full-timers (only Leeds have since followed) and so the system - preparation, professionalism, style of play - which they adopted has survived too.

"The dressing-room was an extraordinary place," Goodway said. "Ellery was the big-name man, the star, and I was the sort of tough person. Nothing would be right for Shaun [Edwards], and Greg [Andy Gregory] was the temperamental one, unbelievably so at times, but such a good player, expecting so much from everybody. And then Joe Lydon would come in like some lost soul and crack jokes. But within that set-up, attitudes were passed on. Denis Betts learnt off us, so did Phil Clarke, and now it's those two and Frano Botica and Shaun passing it on, as we did."

However, the annual path to success is no longer such an incredible adventure. "The winter just drags you down," Betts said. "You have to go to places like Doncaster on a Tuesday night, it's pouring, the mud stinks and it sticks in big clumps all over you. You do that week in, week out. People say that toughing it out shows character, but it's not my idea of fun. And you know you're probably going to win at the end of it anyway."

Betts and Clarke are both leaving for Antipodean clubs at the end of the season, decisions precipitated partly by the failure of other clubs to provide a real challenge. This is why, while there has been much soul- searching at the massive changes proposed, the news has been celebrated in Wigan. "Everyone is saying that we're ripping out the roots of the game," said Betts, "but I don't agree. All the other teams are dead limbs, they're hanging off of the tree -which is the game -and are pulling it down. There are people out there who have been pinching a living off rugby league for a long time."

So will the new, healthy Super League bring an end to Wigan's dominance? The £75m package sounds huge, but the clubs will receive little more than £1m a year, and given that much of it is intended for stadium development, it does not make for a great outlay on new players. "Top-line players will still want to go to Wigan," said Goodway. "And why should Hull and Hull KR get any better? They're both really second division teams, so they'll just be pooling second division players.

"It's up to Wigan. They will only be caught if they lose the structure," said Goodway. "That," added Jack Robinson, the club chairman, "is a very intelligent assessment. If Wigan were a machine, we'd never get caught."

But at least the future presents a new challenge. Betts is already talking of returning early from Auckland in order to be part of it. The fans are embracing it, too, though talk of trips to Paris and Toulouse were cut short on Monday when Jack Robinson gave them a glimpse of the future being forced on other clubs. The worst-case scenario, he said, was one where the new "super" clubs would become all-powerful, Wigan would fall behind and, in order to survive, would be forced to merge with St Helens. The death threats were piling up on his desk the following day.