Five months can be a long time in rugby league.
Back in September 23 last year Wigan were knocked out of the Super League semi-finals by Leeds. In an ugly, grinding, tight contest the Warriors were eliminated and embarrassingly failed to score a single point that night.
It was a fitting end to a terrible season for Cherry and Whites. They had finished fourth on the ladder, with 15 wins and 10 losses from their 25 matches, but with the second-worst attack in the competition. Only relegated Leigh scored less points in that campaign.
The writing had already been on the wall for coach Adrian Lam. A playing legend in his time at the club, Lam had been unable to get Wigan to back up their 2020 efforts and bring the squad together.
Rumours of player unrest, in-fighting and conflict behind closed doors dominated the roster last season. It was not a happy camp at the DW Stadium.
But fast forward to May 2022 and the Warriors are a rejuvenated bunch. Rookie coach Matty Peet, Lam’s assistant in 2021, has changed the culture at the club. Problem players were jettisoned and new talent brought in. The squad now is a much happier bunch, more united and together, and it has clearly shown on the field.
✅ 𝘾𝙪𝙥 𝙢𝙚𝙧𝙘𝙝𝙖𝙣𝙙𝙞𝙨𝙚 𝙖𝙩 𝙏𝙤𝙩𝙩𝙚𝙣𝙝𝙖𝙢
🍒⚪️ Official Club merchandise for the #ChallengeCupFinal will be available to buy at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday!
— Wigan Warriors 🍒⚪️ (@WiganWarriorsRL) May 26, 2022
Thirteen matches in Super League have yielded nine victories and four defeats so far. Their attack has improved greatly, led by some superb feats from flying fullback Jai Field. But, perhaps most impressive was their dumping of arch-rivals St Helens out of the Challenge Cup at Elland Road.
Wigan blew Saints off the field in the first half of the semi-final, then had to rally hard and fought back to seal the result in the dying stages. It was a tense, close affair but Peet’s men emerged victorious. They display character and resolve. Now they are primed for another shot at silverware in the Cup final.
This decider comes at a telling time, a week after former owner and administrator Maurice Lindsay passed away. Lindsay was the driving force that made Wigan a global superpower in the 1980s and 1990s. Victory this Saturday would be the club’s first Challenge Cup trophy since 2013.
Between 1985 and 1995 the Warriors won the Cup a staggering nine times. Success at Tottenham this week would be an honourable way to pay tribute to Lindsay and his enormous impact.
It is also the club’s 150th birthday this year. A win over Huddersfield in London would be fitting as part of the celebrations.
Local product Peet will know this better than anyone. He grew up in the Lancashire town and lives and breathes the club.
Peet’s ‘no dickheads’ policy at Wigan is bearing fruit. While Wigan no longer break the bank like they did in the past for the likes of Martin Offiah, Brett Kenny, Ellery Hanley and others, their recruitment this year has been shrewd.
— Betfred Challenge Cup (@TheChallengeCup) May 25, 2022
Cade Cust has taken his chance at regular game-time after leaving Manly and performed well in the halves. Patrick Mago has terrorised defences with his carries and offloading ability, while Kaide Ellis has added depth in the pack.
The return to fitness of Field after a horrendous hamstring injury has had the biggest impact. That, along with Bevan French’s re-emergence and John Bateman getting back to his best, has helped propelled Wigan forward. The coterie of academy products – Morgan Smithies, Harry Smith, Liam Byrne, Oliver Partington, Ethan Harvard – continue to gain experience and excel.
The appointment of Lee Briers as an assistant coach has also been canny, while former head coach Shaun Wane provides a sounding board in the background.
Five months after that humiliating defeat at the hands of Leeds, the Cherry and Whites are smiling again.