“It’s always your year”; that is what opposing fans chant to the Warrington Wolves during nearly all of their matches.
It has become almost a joke for Wolves fans when they chant back to opposing fans with a defiant “It’s always our year” rendition. However, their fans headed into the 2016 season with real optimism that this year, they might actually be able to buck the trend and win the illusive grand final.
The Wire hadn’t won the grand final for 60 years going into this season, and were grand final runners-up in both 2012 and 2013. Lots of fans thought that, this year, might finally be the year to claim the silverware that they desired.
They invested heavily in pre-season, bringing in some stellar names from the NRL in Kurt Gidley (Newcastle Knights) and Mitchell Dodds (Brisbane Broncos). However, Tony Smith also purchased players from rival clubs in pursuit of glory. The signing of Ryan Bailey, who had won three previous grand finals, was greeted by pessimism by some fans, who were conscious of Bailey’s bad boy reputation. The same bad boy reputation could be attached to recruits Tom Lineham and Joe Westerman from Hull FC, who had been criticised by their former club for having a poor attitude. This left some supporters wondering whether Smith had bitten off more than he could chew in trying to control such a talented, yet perhaps decorated set of players.
The first glimpse of the team for the upcoming season would come at Headingley for the opening game of the season, against Grand Final winners of 2015, the Leeds Rhinos. If ever a side wanted to be thrown straight in at the deep end, the Wolves would have this opportunity. Warrington went into the game as underdogs, but produced a stellar performance to pull off a remarkable 12-10 win to silence the crowd and signal their intent for the forthcoming season.
Many fans thought that, with so many new signings, it might take a while for all the players to bed in and begin to understand each other. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Wolves racked up 7 consecutive league wins, including an impressive 30-20 victory against Catalans at the Stade Gilbert Brutus, to catapult themselves to the super league summit. A 31-30 round four victory away to Salford, having been 30-18 down, showed the Wolves resilience and showed what their stars players, such as Sandow and youngster Ben Currie, were capable of.
Many fans were impressed with how new signings such as Lineham, who scored an impressive 6 tries in this run, had settled into the Wolves playing style. Another cause for optimism was the growing partnership between Chris Sandow and Kurt Gidley. Both men, highly renowned in the NRL for their rugby abilities, seemed to be on the same wave length virtually all of the time, and were real catalysts for the Wire’s successful start.
A run of three defeats in their next four, including an 11-0 defeat to Huddersfield, led to many critics thinking that the wheels had fallen off for the wolves. However, they backed this up with two impressive victories over Widnes and Wigan to silence these doubters.
The Wolves were flying high as they approached the magic weekend and a game against the Castleford Tigers. Despite being known for bringing their A game for the big occasions, the Wolves succumbed to a 34-14 defeat, much to the shock of their travelling contingent.
Again though, the Wolves didn’t let this faze them, and back-to-back victories against Leeds and St Helens restored the confidence of the Wolves faithful. The Wolves finished the regular season unbeaten in their last five, as they eased their way into the Super 8’s.
Alongside their good league form, the Wolves were impressing in the challenge cup, a cup that they had won three times since 2009. They easily dispatched of Oldham in a 70-10 rout at Bower Fold, before overcoming Widnes in a closely-fought derby at the Halliwell Jones Stadium. On the horizon was a semi final against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, but they couldn’t let this distract them from their league ambitions.
The Wolves started their super 8’s campaign with a 20-18 defeat to rivals St Helens, but responded with victories over Wakefield and Castleford to put them in good form heading into the Wembley Challenge Cup Final showpiece against Hull FC.
The Wire contingent headed down to Wembley with a degree of trepidation, knowing that they would have to be on top form to overcome Hull, who were also flying high in the league. Hull had made a habit of steamrolling any opponents who failed to put up a fight, so the task at hand was large.
In front of a huge Wembley crowd, the Wolves raced into a 10-0 lead through tries from Matty Russell and the ever-impressive Ben Currie. However, the turning point came on 55 minutes, when Warrington’s enforcer Kurt Gidley was forced off the field with a head injury. With Chris Sandow given the role of marshalling his team around the field, the Wolves lost some momentum. This injury would prove to be their downfall, as late tries from Jamie Shaul and Mahe Fonua have FC a narrow 12-10 lead. Wolves thought they had won it at the death, only for a miraculous Danny Houghton tackle stopping Ben Currie and winning the Cup for FC in the process.
Their cup defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, but Tony Smith knew that his team had to bounce back in order to win the league leaders shield. With two rounds to go, the Wolves could earn this accolade with a victory at home to Wigan. The Wire stormed their way to a 28-14 lead after 50 minutes, as Wigan, who has Ben Flower sent off, toiled. Nevertheless, Wigan defied the odds to produce a comeback worthy of champions to send the away fans into raptures as a Matty Smith-inspired side won 35-28 to the shock of the home crowd.
The task was clear. To win the league leaders shield, the Wolves had to defeat Hull FC in a Wembley rematch, in what would appear to be a huge task; a task that the Wolves would live up to, as a first class performance would give them a 23-6 victory and their first silverware of the season.
Their reward for finishing top would be a home semi final tie against St Helens, their tormentors of previous years. In a game of fine margins, the Wolves would edge their way to Old Trafford with an 18-10 win, inspired by youngster Dec Patton.
The Wire had overcome all of the odds, putting together wins without the help of injured stars Chris Sandow, Ben Currie, who secured a nasty knee injury against Wigan, Ben Westwood and Ryan Bailey, just to name a few.
Their grand final opponents would be Wigan, who snatched defeat against Hull FC to book their maiden final of the season.
A local derby promised to give so much in the grand final, and in front of 30,000 Wolves supporters, a Dec Patton Try gave them a 6-0 lead. A fit-again Chris Sandow would come off the bench on 50 minutes to give the Wolves a fresh attacking spark, but a monumental effort from Wigan allowed them to claw their way back to 6-6 with a fine Oliver Gildart dash over from close range.
With the score level, the game needed a hero. Wigan’s Josh Charnley, playing his last game before crossing codes, proved to be that hero. He latched onto a fine Matty Smith grubber kick to score with 15 minutes remaining and give Wigan a 12-6 lead; a lead that they would hold until the end.
The despair of the Wolves players was evident at the end. However, the fans weren’t angry. They were immensely proud of their boys effort, who had given 100% against a Wigan team who also played to their up-most potential to avenge their 2015 Grand Final defeat to Leeds.
At the end of the season, the Warrington fans should remember that they reached two finals and won the league leaders shield, achieving more success than anyone could’ve imagined. Their squad is still young, with player such as Rhys Evans and Dec Patton looking like stars of the future.
Therefore, Wolves fans should not rue their missed opportunity, but rather look forward to a 2017 season that will almost certainly provide exciting things for fans at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.