This was originally going to be a preview of the Widnes game, but there isn’t really much to say about it other than the fact that it’s a rather meaningless pre-season friendly.
While you never want to lose to your main rivals – especially when your main rivals are them lot – getting too joyous or upset at the result of a friendly is on par with those soft arses who contributed to the Facebook meltdown that ensured when the game was originally postponed due to a frozen pitch.
That said, it is a shame that the fixture is no longer played on Boxing Day as generating circa 20 likes on Facebook for the annual ‘Jingle Bells, Widnes Smells’ status is usually the highlight of my Christmas. Oh well.
The positive of the game being rescheduled is that regular first teamers Ratchford, Westwood and Harrison have been added to the squad, so if you’re one of those concerned about receiving selection-based value for money from Pre-season matches, you need not worry. Surely, being able to sing along to a catchy terrace chant to the tune of a Human League song is worth the entrance fee alone.
There’s not really much to learn from friendlies, though – and, yes, there are such things as friendlies, in case you’re one of them – especially considering much of the regular season counts for very little for a club like us, so there’s very little point in ‘hitting the ground running’. We’ll comfortably make the playoffs, as will Wigan, as will Saints, Leeds, Catalans and, you’d expect, Huddersfield. From there, we’ll see how improved or otherwise we are from last year in big matches.
It was obviously going to happen, but losing Briers left us rather clueless in attack at times. We lacked any real creativity or game management sense. So many times, we would get into good positions and fail to capitalise, while our kicking game was poor and we would throw away games from winnable situations. Myler, O’Brien, Bridge and Ratchford were all tried at half-back in various combinations, but none seemed to really stick. Each player had promising moments, but there was no settled combination and this year we have another potential half back to add the equation with the signing of Gary Wheeler. If he can stay fit, it will be interesting to see where he plays. Much like Ratchford and Bridge, he has played a lot of centre as well as Six, without really cementing either position.
Without getting the cheque book out and going after a proven, top quality dominant half back to boss the team around the pitch, it looks likely that Micky Higham and Daryl Clark will be very important this year from hooker. Both are quite similar players; Higham was one of the first ‘second hookers’ that have become such a feature in the modern era, having made his name under Millward at Saints, coming off the bench to replace Kieron Cunningham and maintaining the speed and directness from dummy half. Last year, much of our best play came off the back of a break down the middle and waves of numbers rushing through in support. When our pack are dominant and win the floor, we have two of the best hookers around to exploit a quick play the ball, so expect to see us focus on what we seem to have to call the ‘ruck area’ (what a fucking horrid phrase).
Hopefully Ashton Sims adds a bit of nowtiness to our pack, as at times last year, we seemed to get bullied up front. Wigan away especially, we displayed a bit of naivety and allowed them to hold us down, slow the play ball down and generally fall foul of some shithouse tactics. I doubt many would want to see us turn into a team of Gripper Stebson’s like Wane encourages his players to be, but we have to be able to stand up to these sort of tactics. Making Ben Westwood (joint) captain last season seemed to have took a bit of aggression out of his game; he seemed to be a bit more diplomatic in his approach, whereas in the past he’d have just lamped someone. I think we missed that at times.
Again, we’ll be up there amongst the favourites to challenge for both trophies on offer. I doubt we’ll have the consistency to finish top of the league. It matters little, as long as you qualify for the playoffs, you just need to be able to string together a bit of good form for five weeks and you’re crowned Champions. There is a theory that consistency throughout the season, and beating teams also challenging for the title, will breed confidence and I agree to an extent, but we displayed in 2011 that isn’t always the case, as we beat every other team in the playoffs home and away in the regular season as we marauded our way to the league leaders’ shield, only to lose against Leeds in the last minute. Give me 8th place and a win at Old Trafford any day.