Shaun Wane has ramped up England’s bid for a series whitewash over Tonga by making it a grudge match, Sam Burgess has landed in Warrington and agents are busy securing new deals for the game’s top stars.
England head coach Wane lit a fuse off the pitch last weekend to really hype up this Saturday’s third Test with Tonga, in a series that the hosts have already won. The no-nonsense Wiganer has always created a “them against us” siege mentality within his squads around big games, and revealed after the second Test victory in Huddersfield that he and his players had felt disrespected by the tourists.
Wane cited comments from head coach Kristian Woolf - a former Grand-Final -winning St Helens boss from where this rivalry was born - and senior Tonga players, in which slow ruck speed, a home referee and Tongan errors were all given as reasons for handing England a win. Wane revealed the comments were printed out and plastered on the dressing room walls in a real old-school tactic, to gee his players up for victory.
And now he is desperate for the clean sweep this week. “They are obsessed with winning this game,” Wane said of his players at the pre-match media briefing ahead of the final game in Leeds.
“The way my lads have stood up to them with the physicality when they are dwarfed in size and weight shows a lot of English spirit and that’s what I’m most proud of”.
There is nothing wrong with Wane’s chest-bashing, heart-on-sleeve approach of course. And in truth this creation of a feud narrative has added some spice to a series that has needed it. Bad timing with the rugby union World Cup perhaps, or just another reminder of where league is at as a sport right now.
Headingley though will be rocking, it always is, and will lift the energy that was lacking inside a Huddersfield venue that just never seems to embrace the sporting theatre it is watching.
It should be a terrific Leeds double-header with the women’s team hosting Wales beforehand, and the Wheelchair team then in action on Sunday against France in a repeat of the World Cup Final.
For the men, Wane has already confirmed captain George Williams will play - he has to of course, otherwise why name the Warrington star for a three-match series in which he was banned for the first two games? That is unfortunate for the effervescent Mikey Lewis who makes way - his partnership with the ever-reliable Harry Smith has really clicked.
Tyler Dupree and Robbie Mulhern will get their chance, while with injuries again denying Tommy Makinson and now Victor Radley, Josh Thewlis and Morgan Smithies join the squad, the latter having been confirmed this week as the latest big-name British export to the NRL after signing for Canberra.
The powerful back-row should excel Down Under, where fellow Super League stars Will Pryce and Kai Pearce-Paul this week joined up with their new NRL clubs. Will’s dad Leon never chanced his arm in Australia’s elite league and is bursting with pride at this opportunity for a 20-year old son of whom so much is expected.
Speaking of transfer moves there is a lot of activity as teams fine-tune plans for the 2024 season.
Sam Burgess spoke to The Sportsman this week as he held court in front of the British media for the first time as Warrington Wolves head coach.
I have known Burgess professionally for over 20 years and he exuded his usual authority in front of the camera despite having never before been interviewed as a head coach. I feel confident he will get the best out of a criminally under-performing playing squad but it goes without saying that the jury will remain very much out on his prospects in the job.
He is brilliantly connected, universally respected, but as yet unable to offer any real insight into what his coaching philosophy or strategy might be. I found the more technical questions fired his way were given responses without any real substance. That may simply be because he has so much to learn and he knows it, but one thing is for sure Burgess will have to hit the ground running in the most unforgiving of roles.
There is a powerful juxtaposition here with Danny McGuire, another Great Britain legend, who continues to turn down head coaching roles because he knows he is not ready. I asked McGuire last week why he rejected the big job at Castleford, opting instead to be assistant to Craig Lingard. McGuire felt that he honestly could not yet do what The Tigers were asking of him, and knows that if you get your first job wrong then there may not be a second chance elsewhere.
That Castleford job by the way was only vacant because Danny Ward decided he did not want it, and Ward this week was instead named as Willie Peters’ assistant at Hull KR - the job vacated by McGuire because Peters didn’t want him. Funny old game.
Elsewhere, agents are frantically trying to secure deals for their players as squads get finalised ahead of pre-season 2024.
One big name to crop up in a couple of reports this week is Salford’s double Player of the Year Ryan Brierley, the star full-back who has recently seen his mates Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers sold to Leeds Rhinos.
Brierley is reported to have been the subject of two bids from his former club Leigh, both rejected by the Red Devils. Such reports will be a big worry to Salford fans so loathe to lose any more big name-stars, not least their hugely popular local boy.
But my understanding is that there is no real reason for concern. The player is in the form of his life, he loves Salford, and Salford loves him, with an improved contract for Brierley to stay at the club set to be finalised and announced imminently.
So where do these transfer stories come from? Often they will be fed to reporters by an agent seeking to get his player the best deal. And who could blame them, with Brierley such hot property right now.
Not far from Salford, Oldham are emerging as one of the most ambitious movers outside of the Betfred Super League. The League One club can look forward to playing at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park with the legendary scrum half Sean Long as head coach. And the former Featherstone boss has been raiding Rovers for some of his old mates, with Craig Kopczak having already joined, and this week hooker Matty Wildie making the move too. I understand former New Zealand international Elijah Taylor will be the next released Featherstone star to sign on, subject to a visa. Taylor is a man with an incredible story...
As for Rovers, who missed out of Super League promotion despite finishing 12 points clear at the top of the Betfred Championship, having already halved their wage bill they remain confident of tying up deals soon for Castleford pair Greg Eden and Nathan Massey, with utility Danny Addy set to join from Salford.
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