Wolfpack vs Warrington: Challenge Cup Round 6 Preview
This weekend the Toronto Wolfpack will take the field for their biggest game in the franchise’s young history. The Wolfpack will be taking on the Warrington Wolves in round 6 of the Challenge Cup. The Wolves are one of the best teams in Super League and are currently riding a 9 game winning streak. So exactly how big is this game? Well, for starters it is being broadcasted on Sportsnet 360, marking the first time the Wolfpack will play on one of Canada’s two major networks. Secondly, it is a chance to test themselves against one of Super League’s best.
The Wolfpack have not been shy about their aspirations to be in Super League as quickly as possible. They have made many major in season signings of players such as Gaz O’Brien and Darcy Lussick to boost their team with players who have experience at the game’s top levels. Many players such as Liam Kay and Cory Patterson are playing in a league well below their skill level all for the chance to play for Toronto and bring the team to Super League. Super League is all this team has worked for these past 2 years and on Sunday they have the chance to prove that they belong.
The Challenge Cup draw can be a funny thing sometimes. The Wolfpack could have been dealt a match with another Championship side or even Whitehaven, the lone League 1 side left in the tournament. They could have got a bottom 4 Super League team. That would have been a huge opportunity to send a message about their intentions to join Super League ahead of their eventual meeting in the Super 8 qualifiers. An opportunity seized by the rival Leigh Centurions who defeated Salford Red Devils 22-10 on Friday night. Instead, the Wolfpack are given an even bigger opportunity.
The Warrington Wolves (aka The Wire) are currently 3rd in the Super League and beating them could show that the Wolfpack don’t just belong in Super League, they can compete in Super League. Of course, beating Warrington is no easy task, just ask the other Super League teams that they have been rolling over for the last 9 weeks. I’m not going to sugar coat this. For the Wolfpack to beat the Wire, they will simply have to play their best game of the season. Warrington is an incredible club and are heavy favourites to win this game. This is a position that Toronto certainly isn’t used to being in. They are not the underdogs very often.
Despite being the underdogs, the Wolfpack have a chance of handing Warrington their first defeat in over 2 months. In order to do it though there is 3 major keys to the game that the Wolfpack will need to execute.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You don’t want to lose a man against a team that employs Josh Charnley on the wing. Don’t give Warrington any extra room to operate, just stay out of the sin bin.
Picking up the first points in this game will be huge for the Wolfpack. Not only because it could help the confidence if they get out to an early lead, but also because the Wolfpack are very good at holding leads. The Wolfpack only have 3 losses in franchise history. They lost to Salford Red Devils in last year’s Challenge Cup, York City Knights in last year’s League 1 Super 8s, and London Broncos earlier this season. In all three of those games the Wolfpack failed to score first. They were also trailing at halftime in each of those games. The Wolfpack have never lost a game when leading at halftime. They do have 2 ties to Keighley Cougars and Barrow Raiders where they were leading at the half, but a tie is not a loss. The Wolfpack are great defensively, so if they can create a situation where they have to defend a lead, I like their chances.
Win The Key Matchups
Rugby League can often boil down to a series of key matchups. The matchups can range from one on one battles to more squad wide affairs. Toronto Wolfpack vs Warrington Wolves will be no different. If the Wolfpack want to move on to the quarter finals they will have to win these 4 match-ups.
Liam Kay vs Josh Charnley
Kay is once again the Wolfpack’s leading try scorer. As a winger, he is usually given the task of finishing off the try and he is very good at that job. Josh Charnley is better. Charnley has been nothing but a force of nature since returning from rugby union. Charnley has 10 tries in 7 games since joining the Wire. Obviously, they have not lost since Charnley joined the team either, although they were 2 games into the streak at that point. Charnley also feasted on a lower league opponent in the last Challenge Cup match, scoring a season high 4 tries against Bradford Bulls.
Liam Kay is currently on try-per-game pace this season. Kay has 15 tries in the Wolfpack’s 15 games this year. He is coming off a hat trick in Wolfpack’s big win over Swinton at the Canadian home opener. Going head to head with Charnley should bring out the best in Kay, who seems to always deliver in big games.
Ultimately, there are two elite wingers going head to head on Sunday. I can’t envision the Wolfpack winning if Kay can’t find the try line. On the opposite side, it’s going to take a big team effort to stop
Charnley. If you give him any room it will be a long day for the Wolfpack.
Ryan Brierley vs Stefan Rotchford/Bryson Goodwin
I’ve said it a lot this year, conversions add up. Ryan Brierley needs to maximize every Wolfpack try. Warrington isn’t likely to allow too many tries near the sticks, so the kicks are likely going to be difficult. Brierley has struggled at times this season. In the game against Dewsbury he was 1/6. That was the low point of the season. He did have a perfect 7/7 game against Halifax two weeks ago (although there was some easy kicks in that game). He regressed to a more normal game for himself last week with a 7/12 performance against Swinton. Converting on tries will be crucial for the Wolfpack to claim victory. The rest of the team can help Brierley out here too. Brierley does struggle with outside kicks, but as the game against Halifax showed he is solid closer to the sticks (as any kicker should be). If there is room Wolfpack try scorers should try to take the extra step to the middle.
Warrington brings a more of a kick-by-duo approach. Stefan Rotchford is right footed, Bryson Goodwin is left footed. The one with the better angle to the sticks will be the one who ultimately takes the kick. Rotchford and Goodwin are ranked 9th and 12th respectively in Super League goal leaders. Their goal totals are a little lower than their counterparts simply due to the nature of splitting the duties. Rotchford is 25/32 (78%) and Goodwin is 21/35 (60%) on the year. Rotchford’s percentage is right up there with top kickers in Super League who are all high 70s (except for Ryan Shaw’s crazy 41/46, 89%). Again this will be a good measuring stick for Brierley, if the Wolfpack want to compete in Super League next year, he is going to have to play at Rotchford’s level.
Daryl Clark vs Everybody
Warrington has allowed the 3rd least points in the Super League this year. The two teams above them are 1 and 2 in the standings as well. Weird how that works. A big reason for Warrington’s defensive success is hooker Daryl Clark. Clark leads the league with 563 tackles made. The man in second is Castleford Tigers’ scrum-half Paul McShane at 508, so it is quite the lead Clark has built up. It isn’t just Clark though, Chris Hill checks in at 7th and Jack Hughes is 11th in the league. Ben Westwood also checks into the top 10 in marker tackles, another category that is topped by Clark.
The Wolfpack has one of the best offences in the Championship. As I mentioned in the opening Kay, Patterson, O’Brien, and Brierley are all players who are capable of playing in Super League and are the driving force of the Wolfpack offence. They have proven to be elusive during the year. Nick Rawsthorne and Kay both scored tries where the Wolfpack didn’t even concede a tackle last week against Swinton. However, there is a difference between Swinton and a top Super League defence. It’ll be interesting to see the scheme that Paul Rowley comes up with to get the Wolfpack away from Clark and across the try line.
Pack vs Pack
Pack vs Pack is not just a marketing term used to sell a game between two wolf themed team names. The battle between the forward packs should be very intriguing in this match. I mentioned in my recap last week that the Wolfpack’s forwards do manage to score a decent amount of tries. Krasniqi, Dixon, Sidlow, Beswick, Paterson (with 2), and Ackers all have tries within the last two games. The immediate matchup is to see if they can still generate that offence against Daryl Clark and Warrington’s pack. The other side of the coin is that Warrington also has some forwards that know how to find the try line. Second rower Harvey Levitt is coming off a hat trick in Warrington’s 33-22 win over Leeds Rhinos. That game of course was capped off with Ben Murdoch-Masila steamrolling over 3 Leeds defenders to put the game out of reach. Despite typically coming off the bench, Murdoch-Masila is 6th on the team in try scoring. Not only is the Warrington pack capable of frequent punishing hits on defence, they know how to hurt you on the scoreboard as well. It will be a big task for Ashton Sims and the rest of Toronto’s pack to contain them. Sims will be a big focal point in this game as well. Sims is returning to Warrington for the first time after enjoying 3 years at the Wire. Warrington’s efforts to promote the game have strongly focused on Sims return, so I’m sure he would like to put on a good show against his former teammates.
By all accounts Warrington Wolves should win this game. However, as the great Al Pacino once said “any given Sunday”. The Wolfpack can beat Warrington. They need to stay disciplined, score first, have Brierley maximize every try, contain Charnley, get the ball to Kay, and win the forward matchup. If they are able to do all that, the Wolfpack will probably head to the Challenge Cup quarter finals. Fail to do even one of those, and it could be a long day.
Ultimately, regardless of the outcome I am just hoping for an entertaining game. The game being televised on Sportsnet 360 will help the Wolfpack and the sport of rugby league reach new audiences all across Canada. Hopefully, a successful viewership will encourage Sportsnet to broadcast more Challenge Cup games, or more rugby league in general. Of course, the best way to ensure Sportsnet stays interested is to have the Wolfpack move on.