2 Nov 2021

Season Review: Wigan Warriors

The Wounded Warriors

A stuttering attack characterised a difficult year for the Cherry and Whites and for most Wigan Warriors supporters, the 2021 season will be one they will happily forget.

Adrian Lam’s side finished fourth and made the Play-Offs - but that could not mask a disappointing campaign that saw them score fewer points per game than any team in the competition.

Their campaign ended in a fashion that typified their whole year - the 0-8 home defeat to Leeds Rhinos highlighting their attacking woes when it mattered most.

There wasn’t a lack of effort from Lam’s team - you could see that in the way they defended in the closing weeks of the season, including against the Rhinos.

But with the ball everything just consistently failed to click, despite having the likes of Jackson Hastings, Zak Hardaker and John Bateman in their side.

Wigan’s absences in this regard shouldn’t be discounted - Bevan French and Jai Field were seen as the two men to light up the Warriors backline yet played just eight league matches between them.

A breakthrough year for Joe Shorrocks saw him collect the League's Top Tackler award

The enforced departure of marquee front rower George Burgess before a ball had been kicked should also not be underestimated, with the club unable to replace him sufficiently.

But this year was still way below expectations for the Wigan faithful, and the club must now move towards a new era.

It had started so promisingly for Lam and his team.

After an opening night stutter against promoted Leigh that they overcame, the Warriors put together a winning run of seven straight matches to set the pace at the top of Betfred Super League.

It included accomplished - if not exciting - wins over Leeds, Castleford and Hull FC, providing Lam’s side with the perfect platform for the remainder of the campaign.

There had been disappointment by that point however - a Betfred Challenge Cup exit to Hull FC in the quarter-finals at Headingley - and a further reality check came with a chastising 48-0 defeat at Catalans Dragons.

That sparked a sequence of five straight defeats with Hull KR, Wakefield, Warrington and rivals St Helens all chalking up wins.

Two narrow victories over Huddersfield and an unconvincing win against Wakefield did little to calm the growing unrest among supporters, and beating Leigh 50-6 on August 1 was the last hint of any kind of free-flowing rugby.

New signing Jai Field managed just a handful of appearances for Wigan in 2021 due to injury

In the remaining nine matches the Warriors would score more than 14 points just once (22 in a gritty away win at Castleford), with stats about their misfiring attack emerging on a weekly basis.

At one point, they went 217 minutes without scoring a try before Hastings touched down at Castleford, and when Leeds won 14-0 at the DW Stadium in late August, it was the first time Wigan had ever failed to score a point at the stadium.

There were bright spots in the late run too - the Warriors’ defence shut out both the Tigers and Hull FC on their home grounds and restricted Catalans to only eight points.

But with the ball it just didn’t happen for Lam and his men, leaving the Wigan boss to reflect on a disappointing end to his long association with the club as player and coach.

“I'm absolutely gutted, the dressing room is devastated,” Lam reflected after the Leeds Play-Off defeat.

“I've spent a big chunk of my life in Wigan, I absolutely love the place and I've had a great ride.

“We didn't really attack the way we trained and it's been a bit like that all year with all the changes we've had to make.”

Lam will leave a legacy behind, mostly a young group of forwards that now have a heap of first experience ahead of their years.

Oliver Partington, Liam Byrne, Ethan Havard and Morgan Smithies are already seasoned Super League campaigners despite their age.

Two others stood out even more - the emergence of Kai Pearce-Paul was a genuine ray of hope for Wigan supporters, with the London-born back rowers ball skills a joy to watch.

And Joe Shorrocks went from fringe player to one of the most important in the team, featuring in all but one match, covering various positions and finishing as the competition’s top tackler.

Elsewhere, playmaker Hastings never wavered in his efforts to lift his side, filling in at full-back and hooker as Lam searched for the best formula for his attack.

Liam Farrell was another to try his all throughout, but not even his vast experience could lift the team to better things.

Now the club will look forward, hoping that the return of French and Field, alongside a change in coach, can help spark a season of improved fortunes in 2022, especially with ball in hand.

Star man - Jackson Hastings

It might sound surprising to name a half-back as star player for a team that so patently struggled to score points, but Jackson Hastings went above and beyond for his side all season. Asked to play at both full-back and hooker at different stages, the Australian’s commitment to the cause was never in doubt, and only three players in the entire competition came up with more assists than him. The emotion in his post-match interview after the Leeds Play-Off defeat showed how much it meant to Hastings - he can leave with his head held high.

Season highlight - Round 25 versus Catalans Dragons

For one week at least, there was optimism that a difficult season could yet finish on a major high. In beating League Leaders Catalans at home 12-8 in the final round, Adrian Lam’s side showed they still had a Play-Offs battle-hardened edge that hinted they could yet make a late Grand Final charge. On paper the Dragons had much the stronger side, with Wigan making a host of changes, but the home side defended superbly and took chances though Willie Isa and James McDonnell. At the time it looked the perfect preparation for the following week’s clash with Leeds.

Rising star - Kai Pearce-Paul 

Pearce-Paul's performances in the back row offered Wigan supporters genuine hope that better times can lie ahead. The towering London Broncos product showed a superb ability to take on defensive lines and free his arms to offload, often providing the most dangerous point of his side’s attacks. Pearce-Paul will have benefitted significantly from playing in more than half of the Warriors’ games this year, and with another pre-season under his belt for 2022, will be one to watch again.