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Warrington Wolves celebrate most successful Super League season to date
WHEN the dust well and truly settles on the disappointment of the Old Trafford defeat, 2012 will be remembered fondly as Warrington Wolves’ best yet in the Super League era.
Winning the Challenge Cup for the third time in four years, making their Grand Final debut, finishing second in the league table, doing the double at under 20s level and a stack of international call-ups is significant achievement at elite level.
A lot of questions were answered along the way.
Some concern was expressed that a groundbreaking three-week training camp in Australia that concluded six days before the season started may have had a detrimental impact on the early part of the year. Well, Wolves won four and drew one of their opening five games.
There was mention that the squad rotation policy could damage Warrington’s finishing position in the ladder and hinder chances of success in the end-of-season play-offs. Well, Tony Smith’s men were only a point behind Wigan at the death and would have won the League Leaders’ Shield for the second year running if Shaun Wane’s side had not pulled off a miracle comeback in their penultimate game at Hull Kingston Rovers.
It has often been said that the relative highs or lows of a Challenge Cup Final appearance in August can leave a team short of fuel for the push to Old Trafford.
Again, Wolves showed little sign of that as they reached the Grand Final for the first time and were full of running at Old Trafford.
Unfortunately, too much energy was spent in defence due to errors made on the night as Leeds Rhinos used their champion experience to be crowned title winners for the fifth time in six years.And they achieved all of that despite losing international stars Matt King and Louis Anderson at the end of 2011 and with far more injury concerns than the previous year.
David Solomona was virtually sidelined for the full campaign and large chunks were missed by new signing Stefan Ratchford, try poacher Richie Myler, inspirational hooker Michael Monaghan, skipper Adrian Morley, regular right centre Chris Bridge, ever improving Simon Grix, Man of Steel contender Ben Westwood and pack hulk Ben Harrison.
It is true to say that the flamboyance in Wolves’ play that led to England cricket star Graeme Swann labelling them ‘the Barcelona of Super League’ last year never reached the same heights as consist-ently.
That is no surprise with the ‘rests’ afforded to players at regular intervals and the injuries, meaning that the rhythm and fluency attained from regular combinations between backs and forwards suffered some disruption throughout the year. Only once did Smith pick the same 17 as the week before – that was for the Grand Final.
But the benefits of calling on the squad strength should be now clear for all to see.
Whereas Wolves were flagging when it came to last year’s play-offs semi-final home loss to Leeds, players had energy left in the tank for the big games at the end of this season.
And, possibly more importantly for the long-term aim of consistently competing for the sport’s top honours, Smith blooded quality young talent.
He dipped in and out back rower Ben Currie, hooker Brad Dwyer, centre/winger Rhys Evans and full back Jordan Burke, while also handing a 12-match run to half back Gareth O’Brien.
That experience, with more to follow for them and undoubtedly others in 2013, will prove invaluable as Wolves seek to replace the elder members of the squad in the years to come.
We saw the emergence of Tyrone McCarthy as a first-team regular and the incredible debut campaign of Chris Hill, a part-time player in the Championship with Leigh last season but he ended club duties in 2012 with Wolves’ player and players’ player of the year awards as well as a call-up to the senior England squad.
Although the champagne rugby of 2011 was not always apparent, there was no shortage of entertainment value.
Only Wigan scored more points than Warrington, while the defensive record was third best despite the heavy defeats at Salford and London – when Smith made too many team changes – along with the big loss in difficult circumstances against Catalan in France at Easter.
Those Salford, London and Catalan games were the low points, while the best five performances of the year will vary among each supporter.
However, the Challenge Cup Final win against Leeds at Wembley, the play-offs win at St Helens, the first league win on St Helens soil since 1994, the home win against table toppers Wigan just six days after victory at Langtree Park, the Challenge Cup quarter-final success in Perpignan, toppling Wigan on their own turf again, ending the top-two hopes of Catalan at home and embarrassing the champions at The Halliwell Jones Stadium must all be contenders.
One partnership not affected by team rotation was on the left flank, where Ryan Atkins and Chris Riley scored 56 of the team’s 204 tries.
Warringtonian Riley, back on form after a tough 2011, equalled his best tally in one season with 29 scores as he finished joint top of the club’s try chart with Joel Monaghan, who took his incredible record to 59 tries in 57 games since joining the club from Canberra Raiders.
It was a year of milestones too – among them were Lee Briers making his club 400th appearance and kicking his 1,000th goal (including drop goals), Adrian Morley making his 400th career appearance.
And it was all lapped up by record crowds, with Wolves selling 8,000 season tickets for the first time, with their home Super League average ‘gate’ of 11,456 being the highest since the 1955/56 season.
All in all, Warrington Wolves are now entrench-ed in a trend of progression year after year and nobody can ask for any more than that.
Roll on next year!