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Wolves the class act, Dragons more than dark horses

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George Riley George Riley | 22:27 UK time, Wednesday, 29 February 2012

There's a strong sense of deja vu a month into the season with the two big Ws walloping everyone, but the Dragons from Perpignan are breathing the early fire.

Sitting at the Halliwell Jones watching Warrington ease past Hull KR on Sunday, I felt the Wolves were the best team I'd seen this season.

Had I gone instead to Castleford I have little doubt I'd have reached the same conclusion about Wigan.

Yet the rugby league eyebrows are being raised by the continuation of Trent Robinson's project in Perpignan.

Warrington Wolves

Warrington Wolves' Richie Myler (centre) and team-mate Lee Briers have been in good form. PHOTO: Getty

Catalan boast the only 100% record and their thrilling comeback win on the St Helens hooter made sure we were all taking notice.

With the added guile of former Saints half-back Leon Pryce alongside the ever-ready Scott Dureau, whose cucumber-cool touchline conversion won them the game at Langtree Park, the Dragons have this season added finesse to their trademark brute force.

Wins at Bradford and Saints have come away from home, with Castleford dismissed at the Stade Gilbert Brutus. After each of those victories I received a bunch of tweets from fans marking up Robinson's side as this season's dark horses.

I don't agree, I see them as genuine contenders. And if you haven't seen their try to stun Saints last Friday, make sure you watch it. Incredible.

On the Saturday morning of a major Six Nations weekend, it was fantastic to see former England rugby union coach Brian Ashton preview their much-hyped Twickenham showdown against Wales with a eulogy for Welsh league great Lee Briers.

It was an effervescent Briers who I watched orchestrate Hull KR's downfall on Sunday, the same energetic half-back play and unrivalled decision-making with ball in hand.

The legs may have aged and the hairdo may now be more Westlife than Warrington Wolf, but the old magician has kept his box of tricks updated.

Ashton urged England's union squad to watch how Briers plays his rugby.

"Far more than most players in any form of rugby, he understands how to use the space around him," says Ashton. "And with his technical attributes - running and passing, along with highly developed kicking skills, both short and long - he creates havoc when he is on the ball."

Briers himself is now looking over his shoulder since the arrival of livewire Stefan Ratchford from Salford.

Ratchford was on the bench at the weekend, the brilliant Briers was on the ball and Warrington are already cruising through the early rounds in third gear, much as Tony Smith's side did last year.

Only Hull FC, who drew at the KC, have got near them. I went to watch Wigan beat Leeds at the DW Stadium in round two with the Wolves first-team coach Willie Poching, who told me Warrington's squad unit was happier than he has ever seen it during his time there.

Millionaire owner Simon Moran, who counts Gary Barlow among his celebrity pals, paid for the squad to spend pre-season in Sydney - nice work if you can get it.

I was in Melbourne at the time covering the Australian Open and my pal Ryan Atkins was poised to pop over to see some tennis once his training schedule allowed. Tony Smith worked them so hard he never made it.

Poching tells me the squad reaped huge rewards from gruelling sprints up the towering sand dunes and came together as a squad.

"A few of the guys had the odd disagreement on tour but they always sorted it out themselves and there's a great energy about the place," he told me.

Flame-haired winger Chris Riley also learned a valuable lesson about attempting to apply sun cream to your own back in the blistering Aussie sun. His back looked like a continuation of his hair for the next week.

As for Wigan, Sam Tomkins is swiftly chipping away at the thousands of pounds spent to keep him in the sport in the face of rugby union's overtures with a masterful start to the season.

He marked his 100th club appearance with an effortless hat-trick to crush Castleford. As my colleague Chris Irvine of The Times observes, watching Tomkins - like Briers - is like seeing a player operate in their own time and space bubble. At times the opposition is an irrelevance.

Amid all the iPitch bashing at Widnes, it would be remiss off me not to pass on the favourable observations from the Leeds Rhinos players at the weekend.

Having opted to go to Warrington I missed the game but have watched the tape back and you could sense that ball players Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Brent Webb loved the artificial surface.

It was McGuire's sharpest Leeds performance I've seen for some months, while Burrow tells me he loved the firm nature of the surface. "There were a few cuts and burns but I loved it," he told me after running in two tries.

A final word on the headline news of the week, with England international Gareth Ellis confirming his return to Super League.

Despite turning 31 this year the former Leeds and Wakefield back row remains one of the finest forwards in world rugby.

An unprecedented three successive Player of the Year awards at Wests Tigers underlined his place among the elite and, give or take a salary cap, Ellis should have his pick of clubs to which to return.


  • Comment number 1.

    George has clearly been kidnapped and replaced by a body double who actually says nice things about the Wolves. :)

  • Comment number 2.

    I think judgement really has to be reserved on this Warrington side until they have won more close games of significance than they have lost.

    Of course, steamrollering sides throughout the regular season (average margin of victory in the 27 rounds was over 30 points last year) does require a large number of the attributes needed to be champions, but not all. Perhaps it could be surmised that Warrington display the physical requirements of Grand Final winners, whilst not showing often enough that they have the mental toughness to do so.

    Catalan's win last week was made that little bit more extraordinary given that it was against Saints, who have for so long demonstrated that mental resilience to keep going to the end. Whilst it perhaps hasn't been in evidence in the recent Grand Finals, but all those last minute Long drop goals and Cunningham tries were not luck.

    Warrington's stumble last season was all the more surprising given that Tony Smith was the main architect of the champion mentality that has run through Leeds for the last seven years or so; that bloodline can be traced through to last year's play offs and the second half of the WCC of a fortnight ago.

    Perhaps that small selection of evidence point towards it being something that is within the players, rather than a coachable trait. As Saints' side has changed over the last two or three years, have they lost that mentality? Have the years spent in underachieving Warrington sides somehow affected Briers' belief in closely fought pressure matches?

    I thought they were the epitome of resilience at Huddersfield two weeks ago; perhaps they have learnt from the end of last season, but each time they go 20 points up inside 20 minutes, it just delays the asking of the questions that they need to answer the most.

  • Comment number 3.

    Warrington won an incredibly close game on golden point away at HKR in the CC in 2009. This was, to my mind, a huge turning point for Wire, as it became apparent that, under Smith, winning trophies was a realistic ambition, rather than the faintly ludicrous proposition it had been under Cullen's stewardship (witness being knocked out of the cup by HKR a season or two earlier when they weren't even in SL).
    Wire went on to win two CCs in a row, admittedly without too many 'close' games on the way.
    Losing to Leeds in last year's play-offs was disappointing, no doubt, but I'm not sure mentality had anything to do with it. Bear in mind Wire had the likes of Hodgson, Morley, Monaghan, Monaghan, King, Higham, etc - these players have plenty of experience of play-off rugby. It was a close game, and Leeds edged it with a last minute penalty. That's how it goes sometimes. Annoying when you finish top that you're not crowned champions, but that's just the way it is these (Murdoch) days.

  • Comment number 4.

    Top blog. Super League this season is starting to boil nicely.

    Wothingwire - stop moaning, u finish top u win the hubcap - not SL.

    Warrington looking class, like wigan, Cats, Saints and Leeds Hudds & Hull - its looking good !

  • Comment number 5.

    Loving the new season already. Fantastic Catalan v Saints match, but a big ask for the Dragons backing up this week away at Wigan.

    Obviously Warrington and Wigan look good, but they did at this time last year and still lost out in the playoffs so current form is no guide to who peaks for the final push.

  • Comment number 6.


    Do you really believe for a second that Gareth Ellis hasnt already agreed a deal at least in principle with a club in Superleague and we're going to have an auction- You media guys must be naive if you think someone walks away from the final year of a big deal without already having his future sorted.

    Give the lad some credit

  • Comment number 7.

    Good stuff George, that final try Catalans scored v Saints was a cracker and so was the commentary by one Mr Woods to boot. The season is shaping up well with 6 talented sides - would be great if another 2-4 clubs can genuinely get in the mix as is often the case in the NRL.

    Living on the South coast I have not yet had a chance to see the Broncos but at a distance, I am worried about their form - especially given their tradition of getting worse as the season progresses. I can't help thinking that someone like John Kear would provide the current coaching set up with some real impetus and nous, at least for this season.

    Also George, what do you think of the switch of the amateur (now 'community') clubs to Summer RL, plus the expansion of the Championship? I am sure an article on the new structure plus clubs like Hemel Stags, Northampton and the reformed Crusaders outside the M62 corridor would make some interesting reading away from Super League.


  • Comment number 8.

    Great to see Briers getting the recognition he deserves both from your good self George and from Brian Ashton. Union is perhaps far more open minded in the professional era than League and they are reaping the benefits.

    As for Briers, it's like he's been around forever and I'll never forget his performances for Wales against Australia. Certainly showed England how to go about the Aussies and put them on the back foot. What would England give to have a player like him but more than that,the Welsh have a certain passion and commitment that other unnamed international sides are distinctly lacking? And the French on their day seem so much more imaginative as witnessed by the Cats putting on a show in Saints' backyard.

    I for one would love to see a couple more French sides in Super League. But isn't good to see Salford playing some great rugby again. Been a long time they put Wigan out of the Challenge Cup. A sleeping giant of the game.

  • Comment number 9.

    *sigh* George, you didn't mention that the Dragons try shouldn't have actually existed had the ref noticed what was before his eyes in the preceding set ... namely, Leon Pryce passing from the ground with his ball carrying arm on the floor and Saints defenders on top of him. That's a penalty to Saints btw, who would then have taken the ball up field and the final set at the very least would have meant the Dragons coming all the way back down the pitch.

    I hope that all poor performances by the ref when they clearly influence the outcome of a game will be equally ignored, especially if it involves Saints winning a game as a direct result!

    As for the rest of the post Warrington did look good in that match but they didn't look so hot against Bradford. I noticed Briers up to his old tricks again, hobbling off with an 'injury' when the going was tough for his team. He used to do that a lot when playing Saints in the hoodoo days! And Warrington should have been one man down following that disgraceful elbow in the throat by Chris Bridge. Very weak refereeing again there.

    I don't think Warrington look as impressive this season as they did last although that in itself means nothing of course. Leeds looked pants for most of last season and still managed to win the Grand Final, although whether they would have done if their opposition had been anything other than Saints is another matter (talking of hoodoos ...!).

    It will be interesting to learn how the Dragons go against Wigan this weekend. It is a shame it isn't televised. I would like to have seen how they perform against a team that can defend for 80 minutes (which Saints are incapable of doing at the minute).


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