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Warrington Wolves like the 'Challenge'
THE Challenge Cup has been such a good buddy to Warrington Wolves this year.
Like a best mate, the great competition provided a shoulder to lean on when things were not going too well and now it provides an opportunity to reunite Wolves and their hoards of fans with their new-found friend Wembley Stadium – the iconic venue of the historic and glorious back-to-back triumphs of 2009 and 2010.
For a spell earlier in this campaign, there were fears Tony Smith’s men would pay the price for some erratic form and drop off from the chase for silverware.
There were days when it seemed the team were never going to return to the form that resulted in them winning the League Leaders’ Shield in 2011.
Too many passes were being forced, too much possession was being gifted to the opposition and the extra work in defence was taking its toll.
It was deflating to watch and you could see the despair on the players’ faces as the harder they tried to entertain us with exciting free-flowing football the higher the rate of mistakes seemed to become and the confidence ebbed away.
Mounting injuries and the tactic of resting players to keep them fresh for the duration of the campaign also brought a lack of cohesion at times as the team changed in personnel each week.
Credit to the coaches and players in that the majority of matches were still being won although not in the style that everybody wanted.
The frustration peaked on Easter Monday with that 44-16 drubbing away to Catalan Dragons, Wolves’ highest defeat for three years, and although there was another low point at Salford two weeks ago there were circumstances behind that.
In truth, even the performance in France was not as bad as the scoreline – five tries were bombed, Richie Myler hobbled off after 13 minutes and the trek over to Perpignan for a short turnaround after a good home win against Widnes on Maundy Thursday all played their part.
But the way Wolves fell away in the last 10 minutes did leave question marks going into the following weekend’s Challenge Cup tie away to lower division Keighley Cougars.
In the circumstances of the performances at that time, and with stepping outside of the team’s comfort zone with the old Cougar Park facilities and a sloping pitch on a bitterly cold day, the tie against a side half full of former Super League stars was starting to look a little trickier than might have been first thought.
But we can look back on that Challenge Cup tie now as the catalyst for performances turning around.
They achieved the change by going back to basics, backing their higher levels of fitness and skill to successfully pilot a new approach against lesser yet dogged opposition.
The game plan was simplified, with more direct running and less offloads, and there was a focus on cutting down on penalties conceded as well as tightening areas of their defence.
This was Tony Smith ‘reining the boys in’ and giving them a fresh start.
It worked a treat.
Wolves, who have only lost two of their 11 games since then, were convincing winners that day and the team, featuring some fresh blood in the shape of full back Jordan Burke and Tyrone McCarthy, felt they had taken some huge strides forward.
That showed when they whacked 54 points past an injury-hit Castleford side a week later.
Then the 32-16 home win against a highly motivated but financially-stricken Bradford Bulls side in the fifth round of the cup really started to resurrect belief within the camp, although perhaps those on the terraces still needed more convincing that Wolves were fully back on track.
Considering that progress, it was perhaps a surprise that Tony Smith rested Brett Hodgson, Ben Westwood, Lee Briers and Chris Bridge from a side already missing the injured Michael Monaghan, Adrian Morley, Stefan Ratchford, Richie Myler and David Solomona for the visit of Salford City Reds a week before Wolves were heading back to France in the cup quarter finals.
But the much younger Wolves side on that day rewarded the faith Smith had shown in them and the momentum continued to grow with a pleasing 24-20 victory.
That set the scene for Wolves’ daunting return to Perpignan, where the high-flying Dragons had not been beaten since last season and the stakes were a place in this weekend’s semi finals.
The French outfit were the darlings of the sport’s pundits at the time, dark horses for this year’s Super League Grand Final as well as being favourites in the quarter-final tie.
However, Wolves were magnificent. They crushed the beefy French pack and rarely looked in trouble in what was their best performance of the season so far.
Since then, Wolves have stood up their fans twice – punishingly dropping their guard at wet and windy Hull KR after establishing a convincing first-half lead and then in the 48-24 loss at Salford, where the non-selection of many of the team’s leaders had a detrimental effect.
Overall, since that opening tie at Keighley, the trend has been one of progress and it means Wolves can go to Salford on Sunday confident in reuniting their friendship with the Challenge Cup.
The cup has been there for Smith and his men, it has put an arm around the shoulder, wiped away some fears and now it can put beaming smiles on faces – that’s what friends are for!