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Super League 2024: Can champions Wigan Warriors bridge the town’s rugby league and football divide? | Rugby League News

Matt Peet has only ever known Wigan Warriors as a team which regularly appears in finals and wins trophies. That is why it is no surprise to him about the expectations the fanbase have expressed to him when he is out in the town.

Rather than congratulations for last year’s Betfred Super League Grand Final success, the focus is firmly on the upcoming World Club Challenge clash with NRL champions Penrith Panthers at a sold-out DW Stadium on February 24.

The victory over Catalans Dragons at Old Trafford last year came on the back of Peet’s first season as head coach in 2022 which saw Warriors win the Betfred Challenge Cup, although the 39-year-old is fully aware there is still plenty more work to do.

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Wigan Warriors head coach Matt Peet says being reigning Super League champions does not increase the pressure but that ‘expectation is big’

“There’s a vibrancy, but it’s less about the fact we’re champions and more about the fact we get to play Penrith,” Peet told Sky Sports. “That’s what people are talking about.

“They’re not saying, ‘well done, you’re champions’. They’re telling us, ‘you’d better beat Penrith’ and telling us how many tickets they’ve bought and how great it’s going to be.

“It’s far from job done, it’s job just beginning.”

The fact around 25,000 tickets were sold for the showdown with Penrith, Australian champions for the past three seasons, five weeks in advance is another sign of how the Warriors have strengthened the links between themselves and the community of the Borough of Wigan.

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Highlights of the Super League Grand Final between the Wigan Warriors and the Catalans Dragons

Much like the work on the field though, that remains an ongoing process and there is one big divide which remains to be bridged. Namely, the long-standing one between the rugby league club and the football team they share the DW Stadium with, Wigan Athletic.

Relations between the two seemed to be irreconcilably soured in 1987 when the leader of Wigan’s rugby revolution Maurice Lindsay said of Athletic, ahead of an FA Cup quarter-final with Leeds United: “They’re a very successful, thriving little club. They’ve done almost everything right…but they’ve chosen the backyard of rugby league to do it in.”

Lindsay would express regret at those comments shortly before his death in 2022 and now both clubs now under the ownership of Mike Danson, the Wigan billionaire is keen to foster closer links on and off the pitch.

“He wants to try to mend this broken relationship between football and rugby which has been there for 30-odd years, and I’m determined to work on,” Warriors chief executive Kris Radlinski told Sky Sports.

It’s far from job done, it’s job just beginning.

Wigan Warriors head coach Matt Peet

“I think it’s about messaging and communicating with both sets of fans that this is about the town of Wigan now. It’s not about the football club or the rugby league club, it’s about supporting people from the town of Wigan.

“We have to be stronger if we do that together, which we’ll do. I’d love to get more fans of each side supporting each other and wishing each other well when we do things, but we’re not there yet.”

It is a viewpoint Peet shares, but he sees it as benefitting the town as a whole whether people support the Warriors or not, knowing there are economic benefits and just contributing to a sense of civic pride if both teams are enjoying success.

There have been occasions in the past where the clubs have celebrated each other’s triumphs, notably in 2013 when Wigan became the first place to have teams holding the FA Cup and Challenge Cup at the same time.

Wigan Athletic Chairman Dave Whelan (2nd left) holds the FA Cup with Wigan Warriors Pat Richards (left) Sam Tomkins and head coach Shaun Wane holding the Challenge Cup, during the Sky Bet Football League Championship match at the DW Stadium, Wigan. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday August 25, 2013. See PA story SOCCER Wigan. Photo credit should read: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match
Wigan’s footballers and rugby players celebrated their respective FA and Challenge Cup triumphs in 2013

Peet has struck up a strong working relationship with Latics manager Shaun Maloney since Danson took ownership as well, with the pair regularly meeting to swap ideas and discuss approaches which can be applied across two different sports.

“First and foremost, he’s a good man, very welcoming, and very respectful of our game, but also he’s very intelligent around sport and coaching,” Peet said of Maloney.

“He’s a curious coach, he’s a modern coach, and he’s worked with some outstanding individuals. He’s got a strong value and ethos which is very similar to what we have. They’re very easy conversations and I look forward to building on that friendship.

“I think we speak probably more about man management and managing individuals in a team set-up, and I think that’s both ways. That’s culturally what you talk about. We’re in a team sport, but it’s how can you best manage your players?”

Wigan Athletic manager Shaun Maloney
Wigan Athletic manager Shaun Maloney has swapped ideas with Peet

As someone who was inspired by Wigan’s regular trips to Wembley and trophy-laden glory days from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Peet knows the importance of ensuring his team are visible in the community to build the same sort of enthusiasm among future generations.

But at the same time, he knows the Warriors must keep getting results on the field to attract support as well. Victory over Penrith and defending their Super League crown – a defence which begins away to Castleford Tigers on February 17 – would go a long way towards driving that.

“It goes together hand in hand – it’s a cycle,” Peet said. “The more we immerse ourselves in the town, the better our players become. They realise who they’re playing for, they win more games, and then the town has our back as well.

“We help the town and the town helps us, and it’ll just keep continuing like that. There will be good times and bad, but at the moment we’re looking forward to a really fantastic occasion and I do think selling that game out as quickly as we did is testament to the work we’re doing on and off the field.

“If we were doing community work but not playing good rugby, we wouldn’t be selling out and if we were playing good rugby but weren’t among the community, we wouldn’t be selling out.”

Watch Wigan Warriors open the 2024 Betfred Super League live on Sky Sports away to Castleford Tigers on Saturday, February 17 (5.30pm kick-off). Also stream contract-free with NOW.

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