Wigan Warriors: Shaun Wane's side aim to rebuild while maintaing title push
Wigan will be chasing the Super League title despite having to deal with several big-name departures.
Last Updated: 01/02/13 2:27pm
The winners of the League Leader's Shield were arguably Super League's top team over the whole of the year but Leeds proved to be their nemesis in the play-off semi-finals.
The eventual champions, who had already knocked Wigan out in the last four of the Challenge Cup, ended Shaun Wane's hopes of securing a Grand Final appearance in his first season at the helm as Kevin Sinfield held his nerve to kick a late penalty at the DW Stadium.
Concern had already been growing following a poor end to the regular season which saw Wigan lose two out of their last four, the Warriors struggling to maintain the form which had marked them out as runaway favourites for the title in May and June.
The Wane era did not get off to the smoothest of starts as the new coach oversaw defeats to Huddersfield and Widnes within the first six weeks of the season.
But any grumblings of discontent soon gave way to boundless optimism as Wane's side enjoyed an unstoppable run of form which saw them beat Huddersfield, St Helens and Leeds by a combined score of 124-36 in a two-week spell.
Their free-flowing style of play resulted in Sam Tomkins winning the Man of Steel award and Josh Charnley finishing as the league's top try-scorer, but the 'Hubcap' was the only collective honour they earned during the year.
Ins and Outs
There is no doubt that Wigan have undertaken a substantial rebuilding job ahead of the new season, with five of the players who started the play-off clash against Leeds leaving the DW Stadium.
Half-back pair Thomas Leuluai and Brett Finch have both returned to their old clubs in the NRL, with the Warriors attempting to cover those losses by signing Blake Green from Hull KR and promoting Matty Smith, who completed his switch from Salford last year.
Experienced centre George Carmont has headed into retirement meaning Iain Thornley, who in 2012 returned from a spell in rugby union, and Jack Hughes are likely to become first-team regulars. Matty Russell, an understudy to Tomkins' at full-back, has joined the NRL's Gold Coast Titans.
There have been more departures in the pack as record signing Stuart Fielden has joined Huddersfield after a couple of injury-plagued seasons and Jeff Lima has signed for South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Gareth Hock makes the switch to Widnes on a season-long loan and given the acrimonious nature of his departure, there are doubts over whether he will play for Wigan again. Scott Taylor, who like Green has been recruited from Hull KR, could help fill the void in the second row.
Wigan still have plenty of quality at their disposal but the loss of so many high-profile players will no doubt have been a tough test for the squad in pre-season. The new half-back partnership of Green and Smith is likely to be under the most scrutiny and could be the key to their team's fortunes at the start of the season.
Phil Wilkinson is the sports editor of the Wigan Observer and Wigan Evening Post and has covered the Warriors for more than a decade. He also contributes to leading Australian magazine Rugby League Week, and has written five books, including Adrian Morley's recent autobiography, Moz.
Here are his thoughts on the season ahead...
"Wigan topped the Super League at the end of the regular season last year, but missed out on a major trophy after crashing our of two semi-finals. Coach Shaun Wane has spoke of their desire to go one better, and highlighted the need of his big-name players to step up in the bigger games.
But the Warriors have lost a clutch of those big-names in the off-season.
Thomas Leuluai, Brett Finch, George Carmont and Jeff Lima all departed, and they have been followed through the exit door by Gareth Hock following his loan move to Widnes.
All, apart from Hock, have been replaced - Iain Thornley (Sale RU) and Matty Smith (Salford) arrived in mid-season, followed by Hull KR duo Blake Green and Scott Taylor in the autumn - but inevitably a question mark lingers over whether they can step in and fill those vacated roles.
The new half-back combination of Smith and Green has been widely cited as being vital to any success, but Wane's early-season headache is the pack, with Harrison Hansen, Chris Tuson and Epa Lauaki suffering pre-season injuries and Hock departing.
On the plus side, Wane blooded many home-grown youngsters last season and they will be one year wiser and more developed - giving him strong cover and competition for places. And his squad still boasts reigning Man of Steel Sam Tomkins, a backline featuring Josh Charnley - last season's top tryscorer with 32 - and Pat Richards, and England internationals Lee Mossop, Mike McIlorum and Sean O'Loughlin in the pack.
In many respects, Wane was in this position a year ago, when many were doubting Wigan's credentials following the loss of Ryan Hoffman, Joel Tomkins and Paul Deacon. Few predicted them to finish top, and they should expect to be challenging Leeds, Warrington and rejuvenated St Helens for honours this season."