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Opinion

Pathways to power and success

12 Feb 21, 12:47PM 0 Comments

Written by John Davidson

St Helens and Wigan led the way in Super League last year. And the odds are they will do the same again in 2021.

In the grand final at Hull it was just the awkward bounce of the ball and a late Jack Welsby try that separated these two old, bitter rivals. After an epic contest, where they fought tooth and nail, hardly anything set them apart.

But at full-time it was Saints who were victorious, and the Warriors crestfallen. Such is elite sport, where margins are minute.

All things considered, these two clubs will again be fighting out at the top of the table this year. Yes, Leeds are resurgent and on their way back. Warrington invest heavily in their squad and have a strong roster. And the likes of Hull FC and Huddersfield have new coaches, have recruited well and are mounting challenges.

However, Wigan and St Helens remain the clubs to beat.

In the past decade there has only been two years, in 2012 and in 2017, where one or the other was not involved in the grand final. In the past 10 years the Warriors have won two deciders, and played in three others, and Saints have won all three of their grand final appearances.

It’s impressive dominance.

But is it borne from their long histories, their proud heritage, their wealthy owners, fancy facilities and their great coaches? Not necessarily.

This duo have managed to stay at the top for so long in a salary-cap system because of their academies, because of their outstanding production line of talent. That is how they have kept themselves at the summit of Super League when many of their players have been lured to other clubs for more money, or to the NRL or to rugby union.

They have been replaced with the next batch of home-grown, locally-produced talent.

Look at last year’s two grand final teams. St Helens had eight of their match-day 17 that had come through the club’s academy. Local boys such as Welsby, James Roby, James Graham, Jonny Lomax and Tommy Makinson had huge roles to play at the KCOM Stadium.

It’s the same at Wigan. Eight of their 17 on that evening came through the Warriors’ set-up, and that doesn’t include Wigan locals like Jake Bibby who were born and raised in the Greater Manchester town, started in Super League at Salford, and then came back to the Cherry and Whites.

The long-term success of both St Helens and Wigan is down to the way they constantly produce new talent, regenerating their first-team and bring young blood through. They invest in youth and it pays off.

The player development, scouting and recruitment of both clubs is first-class.

Over the most recent years at the Totally Wicked Stadium this has included, but not limited to, the likes of Paul Wellens, Jamie Foster, Lee Gaskell, Paul Clough, Gary Wheeler, Scott Moore, Andrew Dixon, Matty Smith, Mark Percival, Josh Jones, Adam Swift, Luke Thompson, Greg Richards, Jack Ashworth and Aaron Smith.

Many have moved on to other clubs, as a cap system does not allow you to keep them all year after year. But it is still some achievement.

At the DW Stadium their academy has churned out stars such as Sam and Joel Tomkins, Josh Charnley, Darrell Goulding, Iain Thornley, Michael McIllorum, Lee Mossop, Harrison Hansen, Liam Farrell, Sean O’Loughlin, Sam Powell, Dom Crosby, George Williams, Ryan Sutton, Joe Burgess, Dom Manfredi and Tom Davies. It is also a phenomenal return on investment.

Both teams produce talent for their rivals to use as well, like Danny Richardson at Castleford, Davies at Catalans, Joe Greenwood at Huddersfield, Lee Mossop, Greg Burke, James Greenwood, Matty Costello, Jack Wells and Kevin Brown at Salford, Jack Hughes at Warrington and Matty Russell, Craig Mullen, Tom Spencer and Lewis Tierney at Leigh.

The key to Wigan and St Helens’ modern success is their excellent academies, the outstanding way they prepare and develop young blood for the rigors of first-team footy.

And looking at the current crop of young tyros and the next generation at both clubs now, that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

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