How It Was Won: Shaun Wane breaks down Wigan Warriors’ 2017 World Club Challenge victory

Aaron Bower
Wigan Warriors World Club Challenge watchalong Pic 1

Throughout 2024, Love Rugby League will be sitting down with some of the sport’s biggest names to re-watch famous victories from their careers and learn more about the tactical breakdown, as well as the emotions that surrounded those occasions.

For the opening instalment, and to preview this Saturday’s World Club Challenge between Wigan and Penrith, we met former Warriors coach Shaun Wane for a watch-along of their 2017 triumph over Cronulla Sharks. It was a fascinating trip down memory lane, and a victory that was over two years in the making for the man himself. This is How It Was Won.

For Shaun Wane, the preparation to defeat Cronulla in the 2017 World Club Challenge had started long before both sides won their respective Grand Finals in the latter months of 2016. For the start of this story, you have to go all the way back to February 2015 and the inaugural edition of the 2015 World Club Series. In that, Wane’s Wigan were defeated 14-12 at home to Brisbane and while they earned plaudits from some for their display, it didn’t appease Wane.

The following year, Wigan again played Brisbane and again while they didn’t disgrace themselves, they were beaten 42-12. “I have bad memories of those games,” Wane recalls to Love Rugby League.

“We went down there and people said we did okay, but we didn’t. We got beaten well by better athletes and we weren’t good enough. It broke my heart and it tortured me for months. I didn’t like the feeling that I felt powerless.

“I remember me, Ian (Lenagan) and Rads (Kris Radlinski) had a chat in the airport on the way home and I was as down as I ever have been because I thought, we’re miles off this lot. I became obsessed then about matching them the next time we played them.”

The build-up

So when Wigan were crowned Super League champions in 2016, Wane wasted little time celebrating and had already turned his focus to what was coming in the New Year: a chance to put things right against Cronulla, who themselves had just been crowned NRL champions.

“I thought, this was our chance to get equal,” Wane says. “It became a pre-season of obsession about studying everything on what they did, how they carried they ball, the way they played.. we were obsessed with studying them. It wasn’t by chance that the game played out the way it did.”

With the weather wet and certainly in Wigan’s favour, that merely added to the mood that this could be their chance to get one over on an NRL side at last. Wigan were without frontline stars including Michael McIlorum and Sam Tomkins, but they were well-prepared for what to face. Throw in the fact no Super League side had won the World Club Challenge since 2012: and there was no shortage of motivation for Wigan to draw upon.

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The first half

Every coach hopes for a fast start in any game: especially in one like this. Wigan got exactly that in the 2017 World Club Challenge, going ahead inside four minutes when Joe Burgess broke the deadlock. It was a combination of two things, in Wane’s mind, which helped create that opening try: one of them being the Cronulla defence being noticeably tighter on their right side.

That would give the Warriors’ potent left-edge attack, which comprised of George Williams, Oliver Gildart and Burgess, chances to exploit.

“We’d done our homework on them and we’d identified while we were strong down the left, they were weak on the right,” Wane explains. “Their right-edge defended tight a lot and that’s our best edge because George draws defenders and he has a killer ball that cuts defenders out and makes them pay if they’re tight.”

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That killer ball is exactly what Williams produces in the moment. He has become notorious for his devastating cut-out pass and he removes Jack Bird and Wade Graham from the equation in one swift pass, leaving Jesse Ramien exposed in a two-on-one. Gildart turns the ball on for Burgess to open the scoring.

“It’s unbelievable by George. Great skill by the outside backs to finish it, but the detail in their defence made it easy too,” Wane says. “They were too tight. But that ball from George is magnificent. George was magnificent that day, absolutely unbelievable.”

After taking an early 4-0 lead, Wigan’s defence also had to be on form, with that first half providing Cronulla with a raft of opportunities to attack. Time and time again, the Warriors stood up to the test.

“That’s what I was so happy with,” Wane reflects. “I don’t think they were poor. Paul Gallen said it was the toughest game he’s ever played in, the most brutal. That tells me they were good and it was both teams going at it. For us to come out on top, with the quality of their players, some phenomenal athletes.”

And Wigan soaked up a glut of pressure to go further ahead after 23 minutes. Liam Farrell wins a quick play-the-ball and Sam Powell – who Wane described as “outstanding” on the day in the absence of McIlorum – gets the Warriors on the front foot. The onus then falls on Williams to make something happen again.

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Wigan’s left-edge are three-on-three, but instead of turning the ball on to Gildart with minimal pressure, Williams draws a second defender in Bird to give Gildart and Burgess an overlap once again. It is a simple skill to play in your mind, but a difficult one to execute in reality. Gildart does the rest, drawing Ramien and while fullback Gerard Beale covers from fullback, Burgess steps inside off his left foot to make it 10-0.

Wane says: “George makes that defender bite, everything he does is class and Gilly is a great centre to have outside him. His fundamental understanding of that position is unbelievable.” Wigan keep Cronulla at bay until half-time, and with a ten-point lead, Wane is clear with what he demands from his players at the interval.

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The second half

“The first try after half-time was enormous,” Wane says when asked about what he instructed his players to do at the break. “How we started that second half was what I wanted. It had to be positive; if we gave a penalty away, I want a positive reaction to that.

“No matter what, we keep positive and stay on top of them. I hammered the players about our reaction and handling our emotions because if they could handle that first ten minutes, we’d get them eventually. And we got them much earlier than that.”

Wigan do go further ahead just minutes after the restart, again with Williams and the left-edge centrally involved. Wigan shift it left and this time, Gildart draws his opposite number before stepping inside to score, rather than turn it on to Burgess. At 16-0, the Warriors are in complete control.

But as the hour mark approaches, Cronulla – who have been knocking on the proverbial door for a period – finally breach Wigan’s defensive line. Wane’s grin as we watch Wigan’s tries changes to a frown as he watches Ramien open the Sharks’ account.

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“We can defend that miles better. I remember seeing that and throwing some b******ings about.”

Despite being outstanding in attack, Wane points to Williams defensively as the reason the try is scored. In his eyes, as illustrated above, Williams has come in too tight and left a gap between himself and his centre. With Beale coming into the line, it creates a three-on-two as the half-back has no choice but to commit to the dummy runner. Wigan also got their numbers wrong from the play-the-ball, putting the Warriors’ left-edge in a real hole defensively.

Beale kicks through on the angle as Wigan scramble relatively well, but the damage has been done, and Ramien grounds in the corner.

“George is too tight and he needs to get out there,” Wane says. “Budgie has to try and save it and knock it out but he can’t quite do it and then it’s game on.”

16-6 with a quarter to go, how is Wane feeling? To the point as ever, he insists: “My a**e is twitching at that point because they’re a very good team, and their tails are up. My message was that I need a squeaky clean set straight after that try, because if they score in back-to-back sets they’re all over us.

“If it went into the arm wrestle I knew we’d get them, because the stats showed that we scored tries if we were in the arm wrestle. We were very good at being strong in that regard. That team knew that the longer a game went on and we completed, teams couldn’t live us. We were fit. And we showed that.”

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They certainly did. Wigan dug deep and defended the remainder of the game, quelling any momentum Cronulla may have had. With a minute left, the game is won when Wigan secure a scrum deep in Sharks territory.

“It’s probably only at this point I feel comfortable,” Wane smiles when looking at the clock with 40 seconds remaining. “Even if we don’t score here, it’s impossible for them to get us twice and again, we were very good in structure and very good at being fitter than our opposition, and that was the case here.”

Another set play to the left sees Burgess cross for his hat-trick, following a pinpoint kick that cuts through Cronulla’s tiring line.

“They had a great relationship but they’re all good mates which really helped them,” Wane says of Burgess, Gildart and Williams. “They were a special trio as an edge, and it was great to coach them.”

The celebrations

Two years of hurt and months of preparation ultimately led to Wigan deservedly triumphing. Wane smiles: “Me and Rads went to a pub nearby, The Royal Oak, and got a bottle of champagne and just sat there with the trophy – it was the best feeling and it won’t be beaten.”

Perhaps understandably, given the amount of emotion and work that went into the night, it is an occasion that still sits high on Wane’s list of memories.

“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,” he insists.

“There’s no doubting that things stay in my mind, I probably do dwell on stuff and I want to put them right, and those two losses against the NRL teams have always been in the back of my mind. So to get one over on them was sweet.”

As we finish, Wane smiles: “That was a nice trip down memory lane.” The current crop of Wigan players have the chance to etch their names in the history books this weekend, just as Wane and his group did seven years ago. There will no doubt be an equally fascinating back-story to tell if they do prevail.

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