Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aaron Bower

‘We’ve always overachieved’: Wigan’s five-star chance of history against Penrith

Wigan Warriors fans
Expectant Wigan fans will be hoping for their side to win a fifth World Club Challenge against Penrith, the NRL champions. Photograph: Dean Williams/Alamy

The four gold stars that take pride of place as you enter Wigan Warriors’ state-of-the-art training facilities are as clear a reminder as you need about what occasions like Saturday night mean to the town. There is perhaps no place more synonymous with rugby league. Nestled in the Lancashire hillside, the town’s pride and joy has the opportunity to be crowned champions of the world for a record-equalling fifth time when they face the NRL champions, Penrith Panthers, in the World Club Challenge.

The game at the DW Stadium has been sold out for weeks and the sense of anticipation is almost palpable everywhere around town. Those who have tasted what it means to win games like these before understand more than most how grand an occasion this is.

Shaun Wane won the World Club Challenge as a player with Wigan in 1987 and a coach against Cronulla in 2017. That victory against Manly Warringah in front of almost 40,000 at Central Park is arguably the most famous game played in the town, Wigan prevailing 8-2 on the night.

“I still get it mentioned to me at least once a week about 1987,” Wane says. “Just around town, people are always bumping into me, telling them it’s the best game they ever saw and how they’ll always remember it. When you consider there were no tries, that tells you everything you need to know about how good it was. I think the younger generation remember the Cronulla game for similar reasons.”

Wane ranks those two occasions as his playing and coaching highlights. “You can feel it in the town in weeks like these,” the England coach says. “I’ve been going into the history of our club and town for years and teaching our young players about us. What we’re about as Wigan people. Especially people not from the town.

“We’ve always punched above our weight, we’ve always overachieved and this is another chance to do it.”

Shaun Wane is showered by champagne after Wigan’s win in the 2017 World Club Challenge
Shaun Wane is showered by champagne after Wigan’s win in the 2017 World Club Challenge. Photograph: Nigel French/PA Images

Victory against a Penrith side who have won the past three NRL titles would move them level with Sydney Roosters as the side to have been crowned world champions on the most occasions. But in a bizarre twist, it is perhaps thanks to Wigan’s great rivals from over the Billinge Hill, St Helens, that they are even here.

There is no doubting this concept had gained a level of apathy in Australian rugby league: until St Helens stunned everyone last year beating Penrith and becoming the first English club to win a game in Australia since Wigan in 1994. That has renewed interest in the concept on both sides of the world, with murmurs it could head to Las Vegas next year.

Wigan Field; Miski, Keighran, Wardle, Marshall; French, Smith; Dupree, O’Neill, Byrne, Isa, Farrell, Ellis. Interchange Cooper, Mago, Leeming, Hill.

Penrith Edwards; Turuva, Tago, May, To’o; Cole, Cleary; Leota, Kenny, Fisher-Harris, Garner, Martin, Yeo. Interchange Peachey, Smith, Henry, Eisenhuth

Referee L Moore (Eng)

Penrith’s coach, Ivan Cleary – who has his son and the world’s leading player, Nathan, at half-back on Saturday – is motivated by that but also the history this competition and Wigan possess. “It’s good to see Wigan back in this game and back on top, so for us to play these guys is really special,” he said this week. “We feel grateful to be here and I’m sure every one of our crew would say the same thing. I watched these games growing up, you don’t play for a world championship every day, do you?”

Wigan’s coach, Matt Peet, was just as complimentary. “What Penrith have done in committing to this competition over the last two seasons is brilliant,” he said. “Ivan mentioned putting this game back where it belongs but it is testament to them. The English teams crave this fixture and they didn’t have to come to the other side of the world to play it, so full credit to them.”

History awaits again for Wigan and few understand what it means more than Wane. “Winning a trophy at Wembley and Old Trafford is obviously very special but to be able to do it in your home town, that’ll live with you for the rest of your life. This group can write their names into the history of the club, but also the town.”

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.