Hot cross buns, chocolate eggs and Super League’s fiercest rivalries renewed – the Easter weekend is here!
The extended weekend gets off to an explosive start with a triple-header of televised rugby league derbies as Bradford Bulls travel to Leeds Rhinos on Thursday, Wigan and St Helen duel at Friday lunchtime and Hull FC and Hull KR do battle at the KC Stadium.
Local bragging rights are on the line in these three fixtures that are always eagerly anticipated by fans of the respective clubs as well as neutrals keen to see the old foes slog it out once again.
Ahead of Wigan versus Saints, we spoke to three prominent rugby league aficionados as we preview the game with Bilko (cherryandwhite.co.uk), Stephen Orford (redvee.net) and James Gordon (loverugbyleague.com).
A highlight of Easter weekend is always Leeds/Bradford, Hull FC/KR and Wigan/Saints. Is Wigan/Saints the fiercest/biggest derby in the sport?
Bilko: I think so, mainly because Wigan and Saints are generally always both towards the top of the table, whilst also having contested numerous finals in various competitions over the past 50 or so years.
You have to go back to a Regal Trophy tie in 1995 since either Sky or the BBC failed to televise one of our derbies, which can’t be said for the other two derbies. I think that’s a streak of about 70 games in a row.
Stephen: Absolutely for us, but it depends where you live doesn’t it? I think at the moment the Saints/Wigan derby is the best in terms of quality because I think both those teams have a realistic chance to get to the Grand Final.
The top eight play-off system renders some games fairly meaningless which makes derbies even bigger. It’s rare in the regular season these days to have a game in which defeat really hurts. This is one.
I think going back into the 1990’s and early 2000’s the Leeds/Bradford one could lay claim to being at least as big as the Saints/Wigan game, but I don’t think the Bulls are a realistic contender this year for all the great work they have done on and off the field there.
Equally over in Hull, it will be a great game, but I can’t see either FC or Rovers being involved at Old Trafford.
James: It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest derby, the fans of the respective clubs will say their own. It’s also worth mentioning Castleford v Wakefield and Widnes v Warrington, which are the “biggest derbies” to some fans!
Wigan and Saints is always a special one, and it gets the fans out in force. I believe it holds the current Super League regular season attendance record. Wouldn’t like to say which is the fiercest or biggest, but the competition is certainly stronger for games like this.
With just under a third of the season gone, how do you view how Wigan/Saints have started the campaign?
Bilko: Looking back at our success over the last three seasons, when comparing to our struggles in the last decade, shows how important squad depth is to winning trophies. Having lost experience like George Carmont, Brett Finch, Thomas Leuluai, Jeff Lima and Gareth Hock, my pre-season fear was that we would struggle for depth in experience when injuries hit.
Just so happens injuries have hit, with four of our most experienced forwards out at the moment, but we are hardly missing them to be honest. Last season’s bench players, like Liam Farrell and Chris Tuson, have all risen up a level and are playing superbly whilst youngsters Dom Crosby and Greg Burke are not letting us down.
We are also benefiting from having a half-back combination in Blake Green and Matty Smith that provide us with a kicking game. I think a lack of good last tackle options was our ultimate downfall in both competitions last season.
Overall I’m very happy with how this season is going. We’ve lost twice, but one was at red-hot Huddersfield and the other loss at Leeds. No shame in either of those losses and we could have actually have won both games.
The hope is that the experience our youngsters are getting now, by being thrown in the deep end, will benefit us later in the season. We were only going to improve squad depth by playing these youngsters, so long term it should be a great thing for us.
Stephen: Until the win over Wakefield, Saints had been disappointing at home, surprisingly good away from home. But we’re a work in progress.
I think most right thinking Saints fans would say that there are one or two better teams than us out there, but we have to be happy with being just a point off the top of the table going into the Wigan game.
As for Wigan, they’ve been as solid as you would expect them to be, but I don’t think they have been as frighteningly good as the media would like to have us believe. A lot depends on Tomkins. He has been out injured in both games that they have lost, which is telling.
But come season’s end, if you finish higher than them you might just pick up a shield. Not that anyone will remember if you do.
James: Despite them both having identical records, I think there’s a general consensus that Saints haven’t got going yet really.
They’ve had a number of injuries which has hampered them, suffered a couple of disappointing losses, but other than those home blips against Huddersfield and Leeds, they have got the results, even if they haven’t been playing well. They were tipped by many to finish top before the start of the season, and that could still happen.
For Wigan, they’ve responded magnificently to critics that suggested they would struggle having lost a number of players at the end of last season. They are a formidable opponent, particularly at home, and they will be up there for all the honours so far.
There have been some many pulsating Wigan/Saints games. Is there one that stands out for you above the rest as the best?
Bilko: So many, but for me it was a 29-28 win at Knowsley Road in June 2001. Wigan had taken a 12-0 lead before Saints had come back to 12 all. Less than four minutes remained in the first half and the game just seemed to be drifting away, but Wigan managed to score a try from Kris Radlinski, converted by Andy Farrell.
Saints then kicked the restart out on the full and Farrell added a penalty goal from half way. Time still remained for Faz to add a drop goal right on the hooter from 45 metres wide out. In three-and-a-half minutes, 12 all had become 21-12 to Wigan. By the hour mark Wigan now led 29-16 but Saints scored two tries in a four minute spell soon after to make it 29-28.
Great drama ensued in the final ten minutes. Anthony Sullivan was racing free to score in the corner but was denied by an unbelievable tackle by Brian Carney. It was an 80/20 chance in Sullivan’s favour but Carney somehow picked him up into touch, forcing the knock on. Then with three minutes to go, Paul Sculthorpe missed a pretty easy penalty goal attempt that would have won the match for Saints, but the miss gave Wigan the one point victory. That was a proper quality derby!
Stephen: Neutrals might go for a classic draw or last-gasp win, but I think for fans it is the games in which you hand your rivals a severe beating that you enjoy the most and which stand out.
For me, the 41-6 win at Knowsley Road in 1992 stands out, as does the 41-26 win at home on Good Friday in 1996 in the first Super League season. We went on to win the title that year and beating them was key.
Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s we had consistently been beaten before we had even gone into games against Wigan, such was the fear factor and the aura surrounding them. That season changed everything in that regard.
James: It wasn’t necessarily the best game, but the sell-out at the then JJB Stadium in 2005 really emphasised just how significant this game is, and the whole feel of the day was very special – it made you want every Super League game to be like this.
The teams delivered to, I think it was 20-18 to Saints at half time, but then Wigan managed to edge it 22-18 with a couple of second-half penalties. Wasn’t a classic, but it went to the death.
Special players tend to perform well in special games like Wigan/Saints. How influential could Sam Tomkins be on Friday following his eight-try haul this season? And, on the flipside to that, how much will Saints miss someone like James Roby come derby day?
Bilko: Well it can’t be coincidence that Wigan have a poor record in matches recently when Sam Tomkins is absent. He missed both our defeats this year for example.
It has led to suggestions we are a one-man team but clearly we are not, Josh Charnley and Pat Richards try scoring records tell you that, but what his absence does do is lift the opposition teams, because he is that good.
He can be the deciding factor in this or any match. Personally I’m not convinced that James Roby is like that. Don’t get me wrong his work rate in both attack and defence is all class, but I don’t think what he does is game breaking. If it was, Saints wouldn’t have lost all those Grand Finals in a row, including one to us, and two big cup ties against us in the last two years.
Since Sean Long departed they’ve lacked quality in the halves and that’s why they’ve stopped winning trophies. Being honest I look round and don’t see a big fear player in their side at the moment, and they used to always have about two or three! Someone needs to step up for them from somewhere. Jonny Lomax at full-back might be an option but only time will tell if that is just papering over their problem in the middle!
Stephen: As I said earlier, Tomkins is key. It is no coincidence that he did not play in the two games that they have lost. He’s the most dangerous broken-field runner in the British game and will no doubt be influential again.
For Saints, losing Roby is a savage blow. He’s the best all-around player in Super League in my opinion. He does everything except catch high balls.
With him out it is doubly disappointing to lose Jonny Lomax as well. He’s been on fire at full-back and we will definitely miss the threat that he offers in attack from that position.
James: This is the sort of game that big players thrive on, and Tomkins will be no different. He is a world-class player, and this is the perfect occasion for him. Saints are missing a number of key players, particularly Roby, and that will be a big blow for them.
The hope is that the occasion actually lifts their other squad players, and makes them perform at an even higher standard than usual. It’s a cliché, but the form book and everything on paper tends to go out of the window on derby day.
Which player battles are you most looking forward to on Friday?
Bilko: I’m looking forward to seeing who rises to the challenge from both teams sets of youngsters. I think Wigan and Saints are ahead of the rest in terms of being set for the next 3-4 seasons and whilst lessons in experience may be forthcoming, we should both benefit in the long run.
Stephen: I think one of the problems we have had in recent times against Wigan is that we haven’t competed up front. One mass brawl and a couple of red cards aside, we let them bully us too much last season at times.
So I am looking for Josh Perry, Anthony Laffranchi and company to toughen up against their pack, which is missing several of its first choice players.
James: A lot is going to depend on where Paul Wellens is going to play. There’s been talk that he could line-up at loose forward, which would present an intriguing battle with Sean O’Loughlin, but given the injury to Jonny Lomax, you’d expect Wellens to slot in at full back.
Matty Smith will line-up against his first club at scrum-half, and he and Blake Green, as specialist half-backs, will be expected to control the game with authority, given they are likely to be up against a stand-in half-back in Jon Wilkin. Liam “doesn’t miss a tackle” Farrell and Willie Manu should be interesting, while Francis Meli will have his hands full with Josh Charnley.
Prediction time. What will the final score be?
Bilko: One thing not mentioned is that Saints have a new coach in Nathan Brown and I think he will have some tactics to try and frustrate Wigan. If both teams just turn up to play, Wigan will have the extra quality out wide to win. Saints will need to come here with a good game plan that can be carried out for the full 80 minutes.
The first 20 minutes is key, I think. If Wigan can get to the period when interchanges start happening with a lead, I’d back us to go on and win well. I am the world’s worst predictor though, so I shall back Saints to win by four points. 😉
Stephen: In keeping with my tradition of getting predictions wrong on Redvee.net this season, I am going for a narrow Wigan win in the hope that I can curse them.
James: I’ll go for 28-16 to Wigan.
And who’s worth a punt for first try?
Bilko: Obvious Wigan candidates are Sam Tomkins, Pat Richards and Josh Charnley, but the odds will be of little value no doubt.
So I’d be looking at Chris Tuson who has four tries in five Wigan appearances so far this year and he should start in the second row, which obviously is important to first try betting. Might be worth looking at for last try as well. Liam Farrell and Iain Thornley (both 5 tries in 8 matches this year) worth looking as well.
Stephen: I wouldn’t look past Meli or Charnley for first try, but for an outsider how about Liam Farrell who has been hot with the ball in hand this year and Willie Manu perhaps? He’s flattered to deceive a little since he arrived at Langtree Park, but this could be his stage.
James: Charnley first try looks a good shout.
Thanks for your time Bilko, Stephen and James – and may be the best team win on Friday. Game on!