What a difference a year makes.
When these Wigan Warriors travelled to Warrington Wolves at the start of the 2018 Super League season, the boot was firmly on the other foot. The Warriors were unbeaten and the Wolves had lost their first two games, and struggling to get their season going.
This year, it is the polar opposite, with Warrington the side in form, having lost just once in their first six games, and Wigan mustering just the one victory against fellow strugglers Leeds Rhinos.
As the two sides look to lock horns for the first time since the Warriors’ 12-4 Grand Final victory in October, the reigning champions are in dire straits.
After a mass exodus over the past year from the DW Stadium, including coach Shaun Wane and mercurial talent Sam Tomkins, the cherry and whites face a massive rebuilding task.
Adrian Lam is the man charged with guiding the Warriors through the 2019 campaign as interim manager, before Shaun Edwards takes over in 2020.
In truth, this season could already be seen as a dead rubber for the Warriors, without a permanent head coach and a squad in transition. Lam has already used 26 players this term, as he searches for the winning formula.
As the super 8s have been quashed for 2019, and only the bottom team being relegated, the Warriors will no doubt have enough to stave off any relegation fears. After the loss of both Sam and Joel Tomkins, as well as Ryan Sutton and John Bateman, this season reeks of Leeds Rhinos’ 2016 season, after the departures of Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock.Embed from Getty Images
The loss of such key players, and sub-standard replacements, led to the Rhinos finishing ninth the year after winning the treble the year before, and the Warriors seem to be following a similar route.
Yes, it’s only six games into the season, but the loss of Sam Tomkins especially has hit the Warriors hard. The fleet footed fullback could split a defence in seconds, and waltz through defenders with ease; his ability to change a game for the Warriors proved the difference on many occasions throughout the 2018 campaign, and without him, they seem aimless at times.
After tonight’s clash with the Wolves, it doesn’t get any easier for Adrian Lam and his men, with a trip to Salford next weekend, before Tomkins brings his new Catalans Dragons side to town. If the new look side doesn’t begin to gel soon, they could well see themselves propping up the table come the end of March.
The Wolves, on the other hand, have kept much the same team as last year, with the stability in the camp reaping its rewards. With Stefan Ratchford continuing to pull the strings, and Ben Westwood defying his years with some brutish performances, 2019 could well be the year The Wire go all the way and claim their first ever Grand Final victory, despite the loss of Kevin Brown for seemingly the whole season in January.
Although historically the Warriors reign supreme in this fixture, as well as winning the last three meetings between the two, this year could mark a watershed moment for the two teams.
If Wigan do not get their recruitment right, or fail to get enough out of their youth products, as St Helens have proved so great at doing in the recent past, the Warriors could easily fall into Super League obscurity.