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Super League IX - 2004
THE 2004 season represented the dawn of a new era for Warrington Wolves.
They had a new home and four new players after taking full advantage of the new Kolpak ruling, which stopped players from the South Sea Islands from counting on the overseas quota.
Wolves beefed up their pack with the acquisition of Chris Leikvoll and Danny Lima from the National Rugby League in Australia.
They also went down under for leggy winger Jon Wilshere, who went on to make only four Super League appearances due to a succession of injuries, but it was the signing of Mike Forshaw from Bradford Bulls that drew most of the plaudits from the club's success-starved supporters.
They were delighted to have a three-time Grand Final winner in their ranks and the loose forward's arrival eased the disappointment of Sid Domic's departure to Wakefield.
Aussie action man Domic fell victim to the Rugby Football League's decision to cut the overseas quota from five to four having missed a large chunk of the previous season with a mystery illness.
Winger Rob Smyth and long-serving full back Lee Penny were also shipped out while prop Nick Fozzard rejected the chance to extend his contract and signed for arch-rivals Saints.
Fozzard went on record to say that a big part of him wanted to stay at Warrington as he felt that the club had a bright future following their sixth-placed finish in 2003.
Head coach Paul Cullen's aim was to better that in 2004 and to progress further in the Challenge Cup having fallen at the first hurdle in the previous campaign.
Wolves' Challenge Cup disappointment owed much to a nightmare draw against eventual winners Bradford but they had far better luck in 2004.
Draws against lower league sides Rochdale, Oldham and Cullen's previous club Whitehaven gave them a relatively easy route to the semi-final where they faced a mouth-watering tie with bitter rivals Wigan.
But Wolves' most anticipated game of the season was arguably their Super League opener with Wakefield.The Wildcats provided the opposition in Wolves' last ever Super League appearance at Wilderspool Stadium.
How fitting then that they should take part in the first game at Wolves' magnificent new den?
The Warrington club and its community fought tooth and nail to make the 14,000 capacity Halliwell Jones Stadium a reality and Wolves' fans were determined to enjoy the grand unveiling on February 4, 2004.
But some were turned away at the turnstiles as the opening night was hit by a ticket fiasco which spoilt the occasion off the field but Warrington got the right result on it.
Aussie half back Nathan Wood went into the history books as the first player to score a try at the stadium.Skipper Lee Briers, winger Dean Gaskell and Great Britain pack man Paul Wood, two, also touched down as Warrington made a bright and breezy start to the new campaign.
A defeat at Hull and wins against Castleford and London followed before Wolves prepared for a derby' battle at home to Widnes.
Wolves whitewashed the Vikings in 2003 and were firm favourites to maintain their 100 per cent record at The Halliwell Jones Stadium following Widnes' poor start to the season.
But Wolves under performed on the day and were then turned over at Wigan.
Wolves have not won at the home of the Warriors for 11 years and the hoodoo continued thanks to Nathan Wood's failure to find touch with a 76th minute penalty and a freakish bounce of the ball.
They enabled Wigan to turn a 24-20 deficit into a 26-24 win and gave them a psychological edge on the eve of the Challenge Cup semi-final six days later.
Wolves were short of props to rotate in the semi-final after starting the game at the Halton Stadium in Widnes without the injured Paul Wood and Leikvoll and then losing Mark Hilton after 25 minutes with a dead leg.
They also had to make do without the pace and creativity of Brent Grose, Graham Appo and Wilshere but the main reason for their failure to reach their first Challenge Cup final for 14 years was the fact that they gifted Wigan with three tries.
Warrington were keen in defence, dominated territorially and enjoyed a greater share of the possession.
But Wolves gave Australian speed merchant Brett Dallas an open invitation to score a hat-trick and they lacked the guile needed to recover.
Wolves responded to the disappointing 30-18 defeat by getting their Super League campaign back on track with a comfortable win at Salford.
They then gave Bradford the fright of their lives with a dominant display.
Wolves, and in particular Lima, battered the Bulls from pillar to post but they had to settle for a share of the spoils thanks to a late score from man mountain Lesley Vainikolo.
Defeats to Huddersfield, Leeds and St Helens followed before Wolves gained revenge for their Challenge Cup exit with a classy Wigan win.
The highlight of the game was Nathan Wood scoring Wolves' first Halliwell Jones hat-trick but he was brought crashing back down to earth by a below par display in a shocking 31-10 defeat at relegation haunted Widnes.
Wolves made amends slightly with victories over London and Castleford.Ben Westwood bagged a hat-trick against Cas but his season then took a nose dive, as did Warrington's.
Consecutive defeats to Challenge Cup winners St Helens, Leeds, Hull and Wakefield all but ended their play-off hopes and Wolves responded by making the most expensive signing in the club's history, forking out a reported £200,000 transfer fee for Great Britain international centre Martin Gleeson.
Gleeson put pen to paper on a four-year deal but he was ineligible to play until the end of the season following a four-month ban for betting against his own St Helens side to lose at Bradford.
But the fact that Wolves had secured the services of one of the hottest properties in world Rugby League was a clear signal of immense ambition.Another was the swoop for fellow 23-year-old international Henry Fa'afili.
The high leaping Kiwi winger signed a three-year contract and was granted an early release from the New Zealand Warriors to make his Wolves debut at Bradford in August.
Wolves went into the game on the back of impressive wins against Huddersfield and Salford but they lacked the necessary firepower to beat the in-form Bulls.
Vainikolo, who went on to top the Super League try scoring charts with a record number of 37, upstaged fellow New Zealand international winger Fa'afili by bagging a hat-trick.
Fa'afili scored tries in Wolves' next three games but Warrington lost two of them away to eventual Grand Final winners Leeds and lowly London.
A commanding victory at Salford offered brief respite but Wolves' play-off hopes looked dead in the water.
Their fate was confirmed by narrow defeats to St Helens, Bradford and Wigan.
Warrington played well in all three games but they could not have had any complaints about their eighth-placed finish.
They may have had various injury problems and tougher fixtures in 2004 on the back of finishing in the top half of the table in the previous campaign.
But they lacked the consistency needed to make the play-offs, allowed themselves to be turned over by the likes of London and Widnes and made a habit out of losing close encounters.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of positives to take from the season.The biggest of which was probably Simon Moran's successful bid to become the club's majority shareholder.
With the wealthy music industry promoter at the helm of the club, more funds have been made available to strengthen the squad.
He has already forked out big bucks for Martin Gleeson and the signs are that that is just the beginning.
Another boost has been the rising gates at Wolves' glorious new home and Cullen's decision to sign a three-year contract extension.
On the field, Mike Wainwright, Paul Noone, Hilton, Forshaw and Dean Gaskell proved their worth with a series of quality displays in 2004.
Top try scorer Grose, Lima, Leikvoll, Nathan Wood, Paul Wood, John Clarke, Mark Gleeson, Jerome Guisset, Gary Hulse and Fa'afili all shone in patches but more should be expected of Briers, Daryl Cardiss, Wilshere, Westwood and Appo.
Briers can be partially excused as he played the majority of the season with a broken finger.
His form was also hampered by the effects of an operation on his wrist but Cullen expects him to be back to his best in 2005 after booking him in for finger reconstruction surgery.
Paul Wood and Mark Gleeson also went under the surgeon's knife at the end of the season after struggling to shake off shoulder problems.
As a result, all three players were ruled out of the reckoning for end of season international honours.
Mark Gleeson was set to join Westwood in the England squad for the European Nations Cup before announcing that he would undergo close season surgery.
Wainwright and Gaskell were selected to represent Scotland and Ireland respectively.Meanwhile, Martin Gleeson was called up to represent Great Britain in the inaugural Gillette Tri-Nations tournament involving Australia and New Zealand.
Fa'afili was a late acquisition to the Kiwi squad, following an injury to Vainikolo.
Logan Swann was also called up by New Zealand after signing a two-year deal with Wolves at the end of the season.
The back row forward started the campaign at Bradford Bulls with centre Toa Kohe-Love.
Both players will be in Wolves' squad for 2005. Kohe-Love agreed to a second stint at the club after recovering from knee reconstruction surgery.