AS we prepare to welcome in 2020, Gary Slater takes a look back at the past 12 months for Warrington Wolves…

WARRINGTON’s victory over St Helens in the Coral Challenge Cup Final at Wembley tasted particularly sweet because it was so unexpected.

Even senior figures at the club privately feared the worst on the big day – Saturday, August 24. St Helens had already clinched the League Leaders’ Shield and had beaten Warrington three times in the Betfred Super League.

Warrington were second in the table but would be without their best player and leading try-scorer, stand-off Blake Austin, who had suffered a torn ankle ligament in a defeat at Catalans Dragons three weeks earlier.

Supporters travelled to London in hope rather than expectation.

One man who was confident of victory, however, was the coach Steve Price, who had correctly predicted that hooker Daryl Clark would win the Lane Todd Trophy as man of the match.

Price said afterwards: “We made a pact during the week that my mate was going to get the Lance Todd and he certainly delivered. He covered nearly every blade of grass out there. He was outstanding and had to be for us to lift the trophy. He is a true warrior.”

Clark, 26, who had lost three Challenge Cup Finals with Castleford in 2014 and with Warrington in 2016 and 2018, scored the third and final Warrington try seven minutes from time to seal a memorable 18-4 victory.

Warrington Guardian:

Daryl Clark with the Challenge Cup and Lance Todd Trophy. Picture by Mike Boden

The Warrington team was full of heroes. Warrington-born prop Joe Philbin, 24, scored the opening try midway through the first half. Ben Murdoch-Masila, 28, who had scored in the defeat against Catalans Dragons 12 months earlier, grabbed the second.

Full-back Stefan Ratchford, 31, who hardly put a foot wrong all afternoon, converted both those tries to make the half-time scored 12-0. Scrum-half Dec Patton, 24, who had one of his best games for the club, converted Clark’s try to complete the rout.

Ben Currie, 25, was named at stand-off on the team sheet in place of the injured Austin but it was his fellow second rower and co-captain Jack Hughes, 27, who actually took on the key playmaker role and did a remarkable job.

Hughes had featured prominently during the build-up to the match after recovering from a ruptured testicle suffered at Catalans Dragons three weeks earlier – when he played on in agony for 50 minutes before having surgery after the match.

Warrington’s other co-captain Chris Hill, like Ratchford, picked up his second Challenge Cup winner’s medal, having both been members of the triumphant 2012 team.

Hughes and Hill jointly collected the trophy from the guest of honour, Prince Harry, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the occasion.

Warrington-born prop Mike Cooper, 30, also received his second Challenge Cup winner’s medal, being the sole survivor of the 2009 team who had beaten Huddersfield at Wembley to start a run of four cup wins in 11 years.

Substitute Sitaleki Akauola had his best game for the club while new signings Jason Clark, Jake Mamo and Matt Davies celebrated instant success after joining from South Sydney, Huddersfield and London Broncos respectively.

The attendance was a slightly disappointing 62,717 – with neutral fans no longer attending in huge numbers – but many more than that lined the streets of Warrington two days later, the Bank Holiday Monday, to welcome the Wolves home.

Warrington Guardian:

Thousands lined the streets of Warrington for The Wire's Challenge Cup victory parade. Picture by Mike Boden

Warrington had also won the cup the hard way, beating four Super League teams to lift the trophy: Wigan in the sixth round, Hull KR away in the quarter-final and Hull FC in the semi-final before silencing the Saints.

It was a brutal run and went some way to explaining why the team ran out of steam towards the end of the season – the players were shattered.

Warrington had started the campaign like a runaway train with eight wins in their first 10 matches, including a pulsating 63-12 victory at Hull FC at the end of March with Blake Austin scoring four tries and a drop goal and Stefan Ratchford kicking nine goals.

Austin, who was showing the form that had made him the pre-season favourite to be crowned Man of Steel, later explained the thinking behind the drop goal, saying that it was a good idea to practise a skill that may be needed later in the season.

The battle for the League Leaders’ Shield developed into a two-horse race between Warrington and St Helens.

When Warrington faded in the second half of the season to finish fourth, it allowed the cynics to claim that the Wolves had finished fourth in a two-horse race.

The first spanner in the works came against Hull FC at The Halliwell Jones Stadium in May when Warrington lost 19-12 and Stefan Ratchford suffered a torn pectoral muscle.

Ratchford missed eight Super League games – four of which were lost.

The absence also cost Ratchford the chance to kick 100 goals in a season. He ended up kicking 94 (for a total of 204 points) with Dec Patton kicking 42 in his absence.

The first match Ratchford missed was the Magic Weekend clash against Wigan at Anfield, when both teams turned back the clock.

Both wore replica kits celebrating the 30th anniversary of the American Challenge match between the clubs in Milwaukee in June 1989.

They also played for the Locker Cup for the first time since Wigan lifted the trophy after the traditional pre-season friendly in 1995.

Warrington won 26-14 with Dec Patton scoring a try and kicking seven goals to lift the Locker Cup for the first time since 1993.

Warrington Guardian:

Blake Austin scores a memorable try in the Magic Weekend win over Wigan. Picture by Mike Boden

Ratchford made a triumphant return in the Challenge Cup semi-final against Hull FC at Bolton in July, kicking three goals in a 22-14 victory.

Warrington’s tries came from Bryson Goodwin, Ben Currie, Toby King and the increasingly impressive Joe Philbin, with Blake Austin the official man of the match.

By now, Austin had scored 19 tries in 26 appearances and been added to the England Elite Performance squad, joining Warrington team-mates Josh Charnley, Daryl Clark, Ben Currie, Chris Hill, Jack Hughes and Stefan Ratchford.

Everything was going according to plan – and then Warrington travelled to Perpignan at the start of August.

Warrington lost 30-10, the home forwards were brutal, there was crowd trouble at the end, Blake Austin suffered a torn ankle ligament, Jack Hughes suffered a ruptured testicle and Jake Mamo also managed to make an unusual piece of Warrington history by being sin-binned twice in the same match – once for a ball steal and once for fighting.

Warrington Guardian:

The Wire's trip to Catalans in August was disastrous

Mamo, however, who had been signed from Huddersfield, had proved a lively addition to the squad and would finish the season with 10 tries from 22 appearances and a Wembley winner’s medal.

After the semi-final victory, Warrington had six regular season games left and would lose five of them as fatigue and injuries hit home.

Salford, the surprise package of the season who would go on to finish third, completed their third successive victory over the Wire.

At least Warrington managed to win their final home game of the regular season with a 23-16 victory over Wakefield to give Ben Westwood, who had announced his retirement, a fitting send-off.

On a night when the 2009 Challenge Cup-winning team (which included Westwood) gathered to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their Wembley triumph, Westwood was treated to a haka by Bryson Goodwin, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Lama Tasi, Sitaleki Akauola, Louis Anderson and Kylie Leuluai, the club’s head of player operations.

Warrington Guardian:

From left, Louis Anderson, Lama Tasi, Kylie Leuluai, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Bryson Goodwin and Sitaleki Akauola honour the retiring Ben Westwood with a haka. Picture by Mike Boden

Aussie legend Les Boyd was also present for a dinner in his honour and was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.

Gary Sanderson and Bob Anderton had already been inducted into the Hall of Fame at the annual dinner in May. Sanderson had told the diners that there were better players than him in the Hall of Fame but none could be prouder to be inducted.

Westwood’s career was not quite over, however, and he played in the last two games of the season, a defeat at Leeds and a play-off defeat by Castleford at The Halliwell Jones Stadium.

At his last appearance he was 38 years and eight weeks old for a club Super League record that will take some beating.

Westwood, who never took a backward step, was also the only Warrington player to be sent off during the campaign.

The home game against Wigan in March was promoted with the hashtag #BadBlood and lived up to its billing, with Westwood sent off for fighting and three players sent to the sin-bin – Dec Patton and Wigan’s Willie Isa and Dan Sarginson.

Warrington still won 25-12 in front of a bumper crowd of 13,106. The visit of St Helens in June attracted an even bigger attendance – 14,211.

Westwood also had a new job, as assistant coach of the newly-formed Warrington women’s team.

Their first match – a friendly against Huddersfield Giants – was overshadowed by a serious injury to second row Anna Louise Hutchins, who had to be airlifted to hospital by helicopter after suffering a bulged spinal disc in her lower back at Victoria Park. Westwood, of course, visited her in hospital.

Thankfully nothing was broken and she was expected to make a full recovery.

The women’s team had a sensational season, lifting the Championship League Leaders’ Shield and winning the Grand Final to seal promotion to the Super League.

They only lost twice all season, in their opening league fixture at Barrow and against Leeds Rhinos, the eventual winners, in the Challenge Cup.

Warrington Guardian:

Warrington Wolves Women celebrate promotion to the Women's Super League. Picture by Mike Boden

Their record was a tribute to the hard work done by Westwood and Lee Westwood, the Warrington Wolves Charitable Foundation community coach, who was the team's head coach.

It was a remarkable year for Lee, a former A team player, who had two sons playing at Wembley on Challenge Cup final day: Dec Patton and Junior Westwood, aged 12, who played for Great Sankey High School in the traditional Champion Schools curtain raiser against Standish High School.

Even better, Great Sankey won 10-8 to make it a perfect day.

Ben Westwood was not the only senior player to leave at the end of the season. Ryan Atkins, 33, the club’s record try-scoring centre with 168 and the record try-scorer at The Halliwell Jones Stadium with 93, moved back to Wakefield in August.

Kevin Brown, 34, who missed the entire season after suffering a ruptured achilles tendon in training, signed for Salford after a brief loan spell at Leigh.

Bryson Goodwin, 33, returned to South Sydney after a successful two-year stay with a Challenge Cup winner’s medal in his pocket.

Somewhat unfairly, his final act as a Warrington player was to be sent to the sin-bin for dissent in the play-off defeat against Castleford.

Those four thirty-somethings were replaced by two high profile signings.

In January Warrington announced the signing of the England international Gareth Widdop, 29, from St George Illawarra on a three-year deal from 2020.

In February Warrington announced the signing of Luther Burrell, 31, the former England rugby union centre, from Northampton. He made three appearances in July and August but cannot be fairly judged until 2020.

Young players also came and went. Before the first-team squad went for pre-season training in Portugal, Morgan Smith, 20, was transferred to the newly-promoted London Broncos and in July, Jack Johnson, 23, moved to Featherstone Rovers.

In August Warrington announced the signing of the free-scoring Swinton winger Matty Ashton, 21, for 2020 while in September the Wolves recruited prop Samy Kibula, 20, from Wigan on a one-year deal.

Warrington also confirmed the signing of two centres from Widnes, the Cook Islands international Anthony Gelling, 28, a former Wigan player, and the 20-year-old Keanan Brand, the players’ player of the year with the Vikings.

Young players also made their mark on the pitch. Full-back Josh Thewlis became the first player born in the 21st century to make his Warrington debut, against Catalans at The Halliwell Stadium in June aged 17.

Warrington Guardian:

Josh Thewlis became the first player born in the 21st Century to play for The Wire first team when he lined up against Catalans in June. Picture by Mike Boden

Warrington fielded two 17-year-olds – Thewlis and Riley Dean – against St Helens at The Halliwell Jones Stadium in August. It was the first time they had named two 17-year-olds in a Super League match and the first time since facing New Zealand A at Wilderspool in 2003 when Dave Saxon and Phil Berry played.

The pass of the season was made by Chris Hill at Perpignan in March when he conjured up a one-handed reverse delivery to send Dec Patton under the posts for a try.

The surprise of the season came in June when Tony Smith, the hugely successful former Warrington coach, returned to the game as the head coach of struggling Hull KR.

His second game in charge saw his new team defeat Warrington 16-14 at Craven Park. Ultimately, those two points meant that Hull KR stayed up and condemned London to relegation.

Warrington Guardian:

Tony Smith returned to rugby league as Hull KR coach. Picture by Mike Boden

Smith then took two young Warrington players, the 20-year-old Luis Johnson and 22-year-old Harvey Livett, on loan.

Both went for one month to gain valuable experience, although Livett later agreed to spend the entire 2020 season at Craven Park.

With so many young players in the first-team squad, Warrington’s future looks bright – especially with the Challenge Cup in the trophy cabinet.

Five Warrington players went on the end-of-season Great Britain tour to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – Chris Hill, Daryl Clark, Joe Philbin, Jack Hughes and the Australian-born Blake Austin.

The trip turned into the tour to hell with all four Test matches being lost against Tonga, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, twice.

Ben Murdoch-Masila was part of the triumphant Tonga team, who also beat Australia.

The trip highlighted the need for better preparation of the national team, be it Great Britain or England, including a mid-season Test.

Among the former players who died during 2019 was the Hall of Fame member Laurie Gilfedder, who died aged 83 in January and Syd Phillips, the last survivor of the last Warrington team to be crowned champions in 1955, aged 87, in February.

In December, Warrington lost the photographer and former ‘A’ team forward George Thornton, 74, the chairman of the Players’ Association, who left behind a thriving organisation.