The Return of Super League.

This weekend just gone was the third of the renewed Super League season.

The stadiums may be empty but the players are on the pitch and there certainly seems to be no less intensity in the running and tackling.

The rule changes seem to have been the real talking point, mostly for good I will point out, but this last round appeared to show an adjustment which is pulling us back into the main start of the season.

Let’s face it, Rugby League scrums were a waste of time anyway, but at least they took place a lot quicker than scrums in Union.

As a method of pulling all the forwards into a tiny part of the pitch to allow the backs to do what backs do, it made sense. That is, until a coach realised there was no part of the rule which said it needed to be the forwards in the scrum. So they took a couple of big players out and put them at first or second receiver to run at the backs. So another bright coach decided they would pull a few big guys out of the pack and put them in the defensive line to combat this.

So, scrums out and restarts with a tap and go, puts everyone on their toes in attack and defence. Good.

Set restarts! This has been going on in the NRL since their season restart and it is brilliant!

Scrum infringements such as holding down in the tackle can result in an instant reset of the tackle count, with no stoppage in play.

The pace of the game has been noticeably quicker. Defenders need to be sharper getting back and the attackers need to get on shoulders in support. The increase in speed will favour the teams who are less rigid in attack.

However, this weekend’s games it was noticeable that the set-restarts were thin on the ground and there was a lot more holding down in the tackle, which is a disappointment. With the NRL running with two referee’s on the pitch over the last couple of seasons, the speed of the Aussie game was very noticeable, with Super League looking slow and not much quicker than Union but without having to waste five minutes at a time waiting for a scrum to take place. Having the set-restarts is significant in picking up the speed of our play.

Please referee’s keep being brave and giving those set-restarts – if you think the tacklers are trying to slow the play of the ball down, then they are!

In the fast open game Saint Helen’s have a settled team which thrives on broken play and look in prime position for a run at the title again. James Roby’s 500th game is an outstanding accomplishment and there isn’t a team out there which wouldn’t want him.

Wigan looked tired and sloppy last week, with a very relieved one-point win against Wakefield. This week, they were a completely changed side. A lot of younger players coming through who put on a good display against the experience of Leeds. Jackson Hastings is really starting to control the flow of play and the combination of Liam Farrell, Jake Bibby, and Liam Marshall, looking great down the left side.

There was also a great display of camaraderie and respect from the Wigan side, with all of the player’s shirts being specially embroidered with words the players associated with Rob Burrows, in his battle with MND. These shirts will be auctioned and the money given to Burrow’s charity.

Catalan’s looked a different side with Micky Mac and Sam Tompkins back in the squad, with Wakefield having no answer to the speed of Tompkins in the line and his pass choices.

The previous round’s reminder of the game still being in the grip of a pandemic came with the news that eight of the Hull FC squad had tested positive, and they and Salford were stood down for this weekend. The right thing to do. Thoughts and prayers for all the players, coaching and back room staff, and their families.

Day 456 – Sunday Reflection.

For about twelve hours, the Welsh rugby team were number one in the world rankings. Then a poor showing against England saw them slip back to number two. Poor defence contrasted heavily with the one which secured them the Grand Slam in the 6 Nations. Too much reliance on training park moves saw players going to ground without even being tackled. But the real reason for the Welsh slip was the fact that I watched the first half of the match. I knew I should have just let it record and then watch the glorious victory later on, but caught up in the excitement of cementing that number one spot, I succumbed to impulse over over fair reason. As a sports fan, life is an endless journey of finely tuned decisions which can affect your team. If you don’t believe me, then look at the 49ers preseason win over Dallas – I didn’t watch it live and they won. Okay, I had no way of actually watching the match anyway but that isn’t the point. I didn’t watch the Wigan game and they beat Hull KR. I also didn’t watch the Canberra Raiders NRL game and they did lose. As I said, it is a fine line to walk.

Day 422 – Sunday Reflection.

Is it just me, or did it seem to get around to Sunday again awfully quick?

It has been a busy week and I’m not sure I stood still long enough at any point to reflect on anything.

If you do any research on the habits of successful people and ‘reflection’ is often quite high up on the list.

I have The Five Minute Journal app downloaded on my phone but I still tend to be quite hit and miss in how regularly I use it. I like it when I use it. I think I probably would use the book version more, but there is quite a price difference. Tim Ferris has a video up on YouTube which shows how he uses the journal which is good.

I’ve set myself the challenge of trying to learn a new song on the guitar each week. I will let you know how that goes.

Now the summer is here I intend to get a novel written. And one I’ve completed revised and sent to an agent. And continue to blog everyday. Make that blog twice every day (for the next 23 days anyway). I’m sure no one will want me to do anything else for the next 50ish days, will they?

Today had a healthy amount of blue sky in it. It definitely suits my mood, so I’m going to ignore the weather forecasts and be positive about more blue!

Wigan Warriors have secured 4th place in the Super League this weekend with a great win over Hull KR.

DAY 414 – The Saturday Answer and Other Stuff.

So The Friday Question was, What is the one immediate thing you need to do for your creative endeavour to improve?

And The Saturday Answer is, Be Consistent!

What was your answer?

For me, I need greater consistency in my writing habits and in the words which go down on the page. Creative thinking time and writing time can vary too much for consistent output. Sometimes I focus too much on the dialogue and other times I focus too much on the narration and descriptive details.

The Other Stuff:

With news the The Long Way Up had begun, I started back through the first instalment of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman going a very long way on motorbikes with The Long Way Round. London to New York – about 20,000 miles – what a trip.

Lots of folk music listened to this week – Imar, Julie Fowlis, Breabach, Talisk, and Calan, mostly.

By some miracle Wigan Warriors have moved up from joint bottom of the table to 4th in Super League. What’s also incredible is that only four of the twelve teams are in positive points difference.

After his Glastonbury Headlining performance most young people would probably vote for Stormzy to be the next Prime Minister of the UK.

I finished an Audiobook on The Irish Identity from The Great Course series – very informative!

I’ve started reading The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.

Day 97 – The Sports Edition.

Several sports related observations:

Hope has returned to my view of Wigan Warriors! Castleford Tigers were beaten on Friday night, in the first round of the Super-Eight.

As a bonus, Saint Helen’s loss in the Challenge Cup semi-final and the first round of the Super-Eight, might cast cold water on my belief that they were going to clear up the titles and trophies this season.

The icing on the cake must come in the form of Shaun Edwards being named as Wigan head coach from the 2020 season!

The San Francisco 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the first pre-season game of the season.

When I was first introduced to the NFL, the first team I watched was the Niners with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, et.al, and they became my team for simply playing in red and being the first team I watched.

The biggest rivalry for the 49ers seemed to be the Cowboys, and it might only be pre-season but beating them at home seems to be a good omen for the season ahead.

I am still smiling at the Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas winning the Tour de France!

There are some great sports documentaries out there at the moment.

HBO Sports and NFL’s Hard Knocks is a great behind-the-scenes look at how an NFL team prepares for the season ahead. This year they are with the Cleveland Browns. All I am saying is, it is emotional!

Amazon’s All or Nothing is equally as compelling, following teams through the season. The Dallas Cowboys are up for the 2017 season.

The ‘franchise’ has branched out into College football, with the Michigan Wolverines, as well as Rugby Union, following the New Zealand All Blacks through their encounter with the British and Irish Lions this year.

The sports book I am most looking forward to coming out is John Feinstein‘s Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League, in November.

A Season With Wigan Warriors – Pre-Season Thoughts.

For me, pre-season began viewing some of the videos put up on Wigan TV showing the team building trips with the Red Bull team and up to Newcastle. Every team looks to shake up what they do before the start of the season and I am certainly not knocking what they did. I’m just not sure the ‘sense of team’ was particularly a problem during the previous season.

Wigan have always seemed to embody their ‘Ancient and Loyal’ motto more than most other clubs. They bring through plenty of their home-grown players and there is no doubt that the club, and the fans, expect that the team will be challenging for all of the top honours in the game every year. There is continuity from the younger age grades through into the senior team and this does allow players to step up into the Super League team when necessary with positive outcomes.

Perhaps herein lies one of Wigan’s biggest problems, however. There is a consistency of style and play, but this means a consistency of tactics which allows the opposition to prepare more easily for the games. They are unlikely to encounter anything out of the ordinary. They just need to be able to front up to it. Injury crisis aside, the opposition teams certainly seemed more able to front up to the Wigan systems in the 2017 season.

A longtime criticism of mine towards the coaching staff has been the consistency of attacking tactics. Michael Maguire introduced, successfully, the attack an edge and then sweep left-right (or right-left) block-plays across the pitch towards the opposite corner and Shaun Wane has continued with it. There seems to be a belief that the system is infallible if the players execute it correctly and that clearly isn’t true.

What makes this system of attack more likely to succeed is the ability of the attacking players to read the defensive shifts and alter the pass to the lead runner rather than the trailing, or blocked, runner. The problem with the block play system is that it becomes over trained and the players stop reading what is in front of them. I’ve seen it for years in Rugby Union sides which ‘drill’ set moves far too frequently.

This is also the reason why I was hoping that Wigan would sign a new half-back who  might bring a little more individuality to proceedings on the pitch and cause defences to have to adjust much more frequently on the fly. Instead, we now have the combination of Williams/Powell/Tomkins who are all indoctrinated in the same attacking system.

(Jumping ahead to the South Sydney game – you could see how easy it was to stop the sweeping block-play system more times than not.)

According to Skipper O’Loughlin, there has been a thorough review of last season focusing on what went wrong and why, but no clues as to the solutions. For me, injuries clearly impacted upon the season, as it did for some other teams. There’s not much you can do about that. Even when the team was stronger, and when it wasn’t, the main problem seemed to be the overall tactics. Each team seemed subjected to the same Wigan tactics, it was very difficult to see that there were different tactics being applied to work on the weaknesses of whoever we were playing.

I know, I’m starting to sound like a broken record now – I will try to get off the whole ‘we employ such appalling attacking tactics’ hobby-horse, but I have a strong feeling that Wigan’s attacking performance each week might be my undoing.

There certainly doesn’t seem to be specific tactics being played to pick apart weaknesses of other teams. Hopefully the contribution of Charlie Hodgson with the kicking indicates a stronger kicking game which will help.

The Wigan TV interview with Shaun Wane, previewing the Salford game, was pretty much what you expect – we’re disappointed we didn’t win the lot last year, the boys have worked really hard, we want the two points.

Watching first ten minutes of the friendly against Leigh, however, seemed to signal that not a great deal seems to have changed. The same system, the same results – hit and miss. The biggest worry is after a couple of penalties and being down on the Leigh 10m line, there was a discussion about what to do! Surely, the game plan preparation should have sorted this?

Perhaps my lack of professional experience means I am missing the reasons why scenarios for which side to attack, and how to do it, in the 20m/10m zones, working out which defenders are slow, early or late in the match, line speed, etc., didn’t seem to be there?

There are snippets of interviews which seem to indicate that match analysis is done, but there isn’t much point in doing it if it doesn’t cause a shift in tactics! Or perhaps it does and I can’t tell?

Either way, I think this could be a long season again, but not for the right reasons.

A Season With Wigan Warriors – A Series. By Way of Introduction.

If you are a sports fan, you get it. The ecstasy and the agony. The winning and the losing. We all know, in Vince Lombardi’s words, it isn’t a matter of life and death – ‘it is more important than that’. Our team. Our tribe. Our heroes, whether they win, lose, or draw. Our extended dysfunctional family, where hard words can be spoken, but all is okay in the end.

Chad Gibbs, in his excellent book God and Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the Southeastern Conference begins with a superb example of the place sport can occupy in people’s lives. He asks you to imagine that an alien (or a Canadian) visits Earth for the weekend. On Saturday, game day for College Football, they observe us waking early and preparing for the day.

We choose the lucky shirt, and don the colours of our team, in almost every piece of clothing. We read the latest match day news, and listen to the latest commentary via radio and tv. We meet up with other like-minded individuals and talk some more about the players, the teams, and the expectations for the games. Then there is the game itself – whether your local team pulls in a few dozen spectators, or a hundred thousand – the chants, the songs, the helping of the match officials with observations from the stands.

Gibbs then paints a different picture for the Sunday run to church and he poses which is more important. I will pin my colours to the mast right now and say that Sunday’s get a bit more attention in my household, but the image of how important our sports teams are to us is very well made.

I am a rugby fan. Both code – League and Union. I’ve coached both. I prefer League. My team is Wigan Warriors. I don’t live in Wigan, nor have I ever lived in Wigan. It turns our that part of my wife’s family were originally from Wigan, but that is just a coincidence as I supported the team before I met my wife.

I started following Wigan in 1989, after being particularly disenchanted with the ‘kick and clap’ of Rugby Union. My earliest rugby memories were of sitting in my Grandfather’s house watching his home nation of Wales taking on the challenge of the Five Nations tournament. I also remember the stoney silence accompanying a rare break towards a try for England, in the late 70s or early 80s, as my father forgot himself and cheered on England.

Despite the national fervour for the land of my Grandfather, the spectacle of aerial ping-pong, as each team kicked the ball backwards and forwards, I became entranced by the other code of Rugby League. I was amazed as players ran and tried to score tries, only kicking on the last tackle, as the rules gave each team the opportunity to do as much as they could within six tackles, then the other team got the same opportunity.

Tackles were fierce and didn’t result in a pile on upon the floor, and scrums served the purpose of getting the ball back into play. It was a breath of fresh air and I began following the team which won that particular match, for no other reason that they score tries and won. To be fair they scored a lot of tries, putting at least ten tries past Bradford Northern.

So Wigan became my team. The successes, the losses, the rivalries, the ecstasy and the agony of titles and near relegation to the lower division. Wigan is also now the team of my sons, and so it will be passed on, because that is what you do with your sports team.

Wales, in Union, are still the source of national pride – I may have had the Grandfather gaining me admittance, but now both my boys (and wife) are Welsh by birth. Red for International game days, and the Cherry and White of Wigan for weekly game days.

What I plan to write is, as the title points out, A Season with Wigan Warriors. It won’t detail blow-by-blow accounts of each game, it won’t be a comprehensive run down of all the off-field details of the club, but it what it will be is the 2018 Super League season from this fan’s perspective. A mixture of action and musings, celebrations at Derby wins, and anything else which comes to mind as the weeks go by.

This blog series will not be ‘live’, giving minute by minute action and reaction, and some of it may make you wonder if I’ve even seen the game from last week. But again, that is what being a fan is all about, isn’t it? Sometimes you are there at the games, sometimes you watch them on tv, and sometimes you have to read about them in the sports pages.

Let the season commence . . . okay, it already has done – I did warn you sometimes there might be a delay in things . . .!