Very few clubs can match Wigan Warriors’ proud history of bringing talent through their academy, and the way things are going, it looks likely to stay that way.
14 of the 30 players handed a Warriors squad number ahead of the 2024 season are homegrown. That tally of 14 – of course – includes captain Liam Farrell and winger Liam Marshall, with more than 500 senior club appearances between those two alone.
Elsewhere in Super League, there are 14 academy graduates that have passed through the doors at Robin Park Arena with a squad number across the other 11 clubs.
A successful academy setup like the Cherry and Whites have doesn’t just come around by chance, the right people have to be in the right positions to drive those young talents on.
Wigan Warriors head coach Matt Peet: ‘Our development pathway is so well stocked’
Now at the helm of the club’s first-team, Matt Peet has a 15-year association with the Warriors, his hometown club. Most of the 15 years to date have been spent nurturing that young talent in the academy.
With a hometown head coach and captain, Peet insists the conveyor belt of local produce must continue and vows that it will.
He told Love Rugby League: “In any salary cap sport, I feel like the only way to have sustained success is to have a pathway where you can produce your own players.
“It’s a good business model, because you get players that come through and you already know a lot about them. You get players who come through and they’re already ingrained in the standards off the field, but also the way you want to play. It’s like a ready-made conveyor belt of talent.
“What St Helens have done over the last few years is testament to that, what Penrith (Panthers) have done is, and hopefully what we can do – or have done in the last decade or so – quite often it’s been with players that have come through the pathway.
“I feel very privileged at the moment to be the head coach of this club when our development pathway is so well stocked with not just playing ability, but coaching resource as well.
“The club invests heavily in making sure that our junior players, our academy players, our women’s teams, all of them throughout the club are looked after.
“Developing our coaches is a big responsibility of the club, it’s one I take really seriously, and Shaun Wane (Leadership & Management Director) is involved in that as well.
“We want to get to a point where all of the players in our system, no matter the age, are being coached by full-time members of staff.
“The recent addition of Joel Tomkins is testament to that. Joel’s been away from the game for a few years now, and developed himself.
“He’s done quite a lot of voluntary coaching here as well during the last few seasons, so for him now to step into a full-time role is outstanding. Our young players are only going to benefit when they’re learning from him and his experiences in the game.”
Chief Kris Radlinski: ‘We’ve got years and years of history of producing players’
Regardless of where players come from, as noted by Halifax-born Jake Wardle in an exclusive interview with Love Rugby League, they quickly become embedded in the local community and the club’s culture.
That’s largely thanks to how many ‘Wigan folk’ there are in the camp, from top to bottom. At the top, CEO Kris Radlinski know exactly what it takes to be a part of a successful Warriors setup, both on and off the pitch.
30 years ago, after playing locally for Wigan St Judes and Wigan St Patricks, he joined the Cherry & Whites as a 17-year-old, debuting the same year as signing and going on to make a total of 321 appearances for his hometown club.
The 1998 Grand Final winner said: “It’s beneficial (to bring players through), but it’s also so important to us, and we’ll continue to do it.
“We’ve got years and years of history of producing players that play for our first team, but also go onto then play for first teams at other clubs as well.
“Having Wigan on your CV carries a lot of weight. It shows that you’ve been well schooled and well prepped. It’s very much part of our business plan.
If I was a youngster looking in, I can see that there’s a genuine pathway because you’ve got a Wiganer that’s captain (Liam Farrell), a Wiganer that’s head coach (Matt Peet) and one in myself that’s the Chief Executive, so the academy will continue to have and hold as much importance to us as the first team squad. It’s our lifeblood.
“Someone asked me earlier about the difference between now and when I played, and now, there’s just so much science behind it right the way through the system.
“There’s so much data, and decisions are made on these kinds of things as well. We’ll continue to recruit good players and good athletes, but it’s our job to develop them even further as well.
“I think there are a lot more choices out there for young people nowadays, so we’ve got to make our product as good as it can be.
“Our commitment to any player that signs for us is that we’ll make them a great rugby player, but we’ll also make you a good person and we’ll give you some skills and qualities which will help you for the rest of your life, regardless of whether you’re successful out on the rugby field or not.”
And that idea of moulding the person as well as the player is very much a part of that ‘culture’ talk which is so rife at Robin Park Arena.
So often clubs are criticised for the way that they deal with those deemed ‘not good enough’, but not Wigan. That will never be the case, says Radlinski.
He added: “If I was to give a pat on the back to Matty, and I could give him many, but one of his best qualities is the fact that he has a pro-active approach to discussions where you’re talking about things that can go wrong.
“Once a week, we have a culture breakfast in the canteen where it’s circle time, and we can just talk openly about whatever – it might be how someone’s feeling, what the situation in Ukraine is, honestly, anything.
“You can see people coming out of their shells and physically growing as people through that, because we’re in an industry where if you say one word wrong or you’re on camera doing something wrong, you’re vilified and your career could be over.
“I think Matt’s approach to being pro-active and developing people is as impressive as what he’s doing on the rugby field.”
Academy Head Coach John Duffy: ‘We want everyone to be homegrown’
Platt Bridge-born John Duffy, the man who played over 350 senior games in a 15-year playing career, is the man tasked with bringing the next generation through.
The ex-Scotland international, who took charge of Leigh in Super League in 2021, is now Wigan’s ‘Academy Head Coach’, but his role comprises much more than that, and it’s one he relishes, as he explained: “It’s brilliant, honestly, it’s a really good job for myself.
“It’s been a really exciting 12 months or so since I joined the club getting everything going with the transition players.
“I’m really enjoying it, the job gives me the opportunity to work with the academy but in the daytime, there’s eight or nine lads in training with the first-team, trying to upskill.
“It’s a very successful academy, and always has been. I’ve watched them since I came through nearly 30 years ago now, and it’s always been the same here, they just churn tremendous players out.
“We’ve got those players coming through now too. These lads have obviously got the talent, that’s why they come here, but then culture wise and the DNA of this place, they learn that throughout their time in the academy and it nurtures them into your Liam Farrell‘s, Liam Marshall‘s, that type of player.
“There’s great structure all the way through. We want everyone to be homegrown, or certainly as many as we can. To get as many of these lads through up with Matty and training with the first team, the better it is for them and the better it is for the club.”
Rightly so, much has been made of Wigan’s phenomenal depth at first-team level heading into the new season, with numerous quality options in each position before the academy aces are even considered.
It’s for that reason that dual-registration and loan deals are going to be so invaluable to the youngsters at Robin Park this year, with two dual-registration agreements in place with Championship favourites Wakefield Trinity & League 1 outfit Midlands Hurricanes respectively.
Duffy continued: “Being able to go out is huge for the young lads coming through, and obviously with the depth of the squad this year, we need to get players out and playing regularly.
“The reserves comp stays the same as last year where it’s a week on and a week off, so to try and get those lads playing dual-reg, it’ll mean they’re playing every week and that’s massive for them.
“We have young lads who have all had whirlwind years last year, but the aim now is to be progressing and getting used to the situation of playing week in, week out, wherever that may be.
“I meet with Matty early in the week each week, and I’ll already have spoken to the dual-reg clubs as well as other clubs who get in contact all the time with us needing loanees.
“It’s a case of doing what’s best for each player, but considering what’s best for Matty as well with the first-team, he might want young lads involved on a matchday for example even if they don’t make the official squad.
“We’ll then get the game footage off the dual-reg or loan clubs, clip them up, and watch them back with the players to provide feedback.”
Current Warriors Academy ace Jack Farrimond: ‘The history that the club have made my decision to sign here an easy one’
Harvey Makin, Junior Nsemba, Harvie Hill, Zach Eckersley & Jacob Douglas were all name-dropped by Duffy when we probed him for some ‘ones to watch’, but the name on everyone’s lips currently is Jack Farrimond.
The half-back has been promoted up to the first-team setup after just a year in the club’s academy, and is tipped for greatness, with Duffy re-affirming: “Jack’s super talented, he’s got the potential of being a superstar.”
Claiming the Warriors’ ‘Academy Player of the Year’ award last season, Farrimond though just wants to keep improving, showing a matureness beyond his 18 years when we caught up with him.
Giving an insight into life as a teenage Warriors starlet, he told us: “I just keep my head down! I like reading stuff like that, and being praised, but then you can’t let that overwhelm you and you can’t get big-headed. You’ve just got to keep working hard.
“My mum and dad keep me grounded, and that’s before anyone in this building. I’ve got the right people around me, and I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.
“It’s massively beneficial for me to be in and around the lads every day now. Players and people like Jai (Field), Bevan (French) and then Harry (Smith) coming through the academy here, they’ve all been there and done it.
“They’ve been at the highest level of the game for a few years now, so they pass on loads of experience. Then you’ve got Liam Marshall and Liam Farrell, they’ve got the experience of coming all the way through the system as well, so that’s massive for me as a young lad.
“I lean on those lads loads, they’re really the first people that you go to because they’re still playing now, I’ll always go and ask what they think is best in a situation if I come unstuck.
“If they don’t have the answer, then you refer to the coaching staff, but nine times out of 10, they will have it or at least have some bit of advice or guidance to steer you on the right path.”
A Leigh Miners Rangers junior, the young playmaker joined Wigan aged 14, progressing through their scholarship setup and navigating through a combination of injuries & the COVID-19 Pandemic to sign his first full-time deal.
Unsurprisingly, the Warriors’ rich history of academy talent success played a huge part in his choice to choose Wigan’s offer over others on the table.
He continued: “The history that the club have in bringing young players through made my decision to sign here when I was starting my scholarship quite an easy one.
“The people and the players that Wigan bring through, when you look at the careers some of them have gone on to have, it’s unbelievable.”
That – in truth – tells you all you need to know about why the Cherry & Whites’ conveyor belt is likely to continue for years to come. One day, someone will probably choose Wigan because of Jack Farrimond’s success in the game.