In focus: Wigan's three young guns

In focus: Wigan's three young guns

By Alastair Hancock

  • A long read as Assistant Coach Matty Peet shares his thoughts on Wigan Warriors’ rising talent in Ollie Partington, Liam Byrne and Morgan Smithies.

  • All three players have made their debuts for the Club over the past year and have stamped their places within Adrian Lam’s team.

  • Peet: “All three of them are humble lads. They might not look like it when they are playing, but they work hard. They are enjoying getting a bit of praise at the moment but it’s about keeping it in context.”

Wigan Warriors Assistant Coach Matty Peet says rising stars Ollie Partington, Liam Byrne and Morgan Smithies must not get ahead of themselves after making the rugby league headlines in recent weeks due to their impressive performances.

Peet, who has coached the trio since they joined the Club’s Academy system, stresses they must ‘judge themselves on what their coaches and families think’ as opposed to opinions on the outside.

All three Academy graduates have been inducted into Wigan’s first team over the past year and the coach believes the recent media publicity has been deserved, but says it is important for the youngsters to keep their feet on the ground.

“The attention is deserved, but because there’s lots of different media streams and things get repeated a lot you only have to have one or two good games and you get a lot of praise, whereas in the past, it was just a pat on the back from your coach,” he said.

Matty Peet in training last week.

Peet, who was Wigan Head of Youth when the trio were progressing through the Club’s Academy system, added: “They have to ignore it though and concentrate on turning up each day, working hard and learning as much as they can.

“I’m confident they will do that – I’ve known all three of them for quite a while and they’re all from really good, solid families and it’s those people who keep them grounded. They have to judge themselves on what their coaches and families think of them.

“All three of them are humble lads. They might not look like it when they are playing, but they work hard. They are enjoying getting a bit of praise at the moment but it’s about keeping it in context.”

Partington, Byrne and Smithies have all played together in the Warriors’ last five Betfred Super League games and both rugby league experts and fans alike have showcased their praise and hype towards the talented trio.

Peet said: “They haven’t achieved anything yet – in terms of comparing them to people like Liam Farrell, Willie Isa or Sam Powell.

“Everyone inside the Club is realistic in terms of where they are at – it’s more the people on the outside talking about them and we want them to enjoy it but turn a blind eye to it.”

Head Coach Adrian Lam, who has named the three young guns 43 times overall together in his 17-man squads this year, echoed Peet, as he revealed he regular speaks to them about off-field opinion.

“They know they’re being acknowledged from the rugby league world because of the hard work they’ve put in – but they also know not to get ahead of themselves and think they are better than what they are – they have to keep their head down.

Adrian Lam in training last week.

“I’ve been really pleased with how they’ve progressed. I’m always pulling them into my office and talking to them about keeping their feet grounded. They’ve done a great job for us but it’s not over yet – they’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Partington is the only one of the three who was born in Wigan, as he progressed through the Warriors Academy system after signing from local amateur club Orrell St. James ARLFC.

The front rower became an Under-19s Grand Final Winner in 2017, whilst also representing England at Youth level.

After an impressive season he was rewarded with a professional contract with Wigan ahead of the 2018 campaign.

Partington was part of the Under-19s Grand Final winning squad in 2017.

Renowned for his powerful play and tough tackling, Partington burst on to the scene in 2018 and helped Wigan to Super League success, after making five first team appearances following his debut in the 24-22 win against Castleford Tigers at the DW Stadium in August.

After working under former Head Coach Shaun Wane last year, the 20-year-old relished the opportunity new boss Lam gave him, after he switched from the No.35 jersey to No.26.

After playing on dual-registration at the start of the year before stamping his name within the Wigan first team, Partington penned a new four-year deal with the Club in early June this year, and overall this campaign has made 18 appearances, including ten starts.

Partingon playing for Swinton earlier this campaign.

On his season so far, the prop forward said: “It’s gone really well. It was a slow start, but we’ve slowly built throughout the season and I think I’ve grown in the team. I’ve tried to improve each game by listening to the coaches and players around me and I think I’ve come on quite a bit since the start of the season.

“I love to experience from the other players around me. It’s great to play against big blokes and that experience of coming up against men can only be good for me. I try not to be frightened of anyone – I take it as it comes, and I know I’ve got lots of mates on the pitch alongside me to always back me up.”

On the media attention, he commented: “I don’t really take much notice of it. It’s nice to hear people are saying stuff but I try not to take much notice of it and just focus on my own game on the pitch.

Partington in action for Wigan this season.

“Me, Liam and Morgan have had that bond at Under-19s level and it’s great to now play with them on the bigger stage. We are quite close mates and we’ve got even closer this season.”

Coach Peet, added: “Ollie’s a good player – he’s always been a good player. He plays an aggressive game and he’s trying to prove himself that way, which is really good, but there is a lot more to Ollie.

“He’s got a good rugby brain; he understands the game and he’s got a good passing game too. The next level for Ollie is expressing himself with the ball more and not just relying on that physicality.”

Prop forward Byrne is a player who has been on a different journey to Wigan’s first team, compared to Partington and Smithies.

The Salford-born 19-year-old started his rugby league career at amateur club Cadishead Rhinos ARLFC in Manchester and he was given a trial with Wigan after impressing a local amateur coach at Wigan St. Judes ARLFC, who informed the Warriors Academy about him.

Whilst on trial, Byrne caught the train from Salford and cycled to training every morning to make it on time, nevermore so highlighting his dedication to achieve a contract within the Academy.

That commitment saw him being signed up by the Club in 2017, and during his two years in the Under-19s team, he became a double Grand Final Winner and was awarded the 2018 Wigan Warriors Official Supporters Club ‘Riversides’ Player of the Year.

Byrne in action for the Under-19s in 2018.

His stand-out performances and strength and authority within the middle of the Under-19s pack saw Byrne named in the Wigan first team squad for the 2019 season, as he was given the No.36 shirt.

Head Coach Lam gave the 20-year-old his professional debut in February this year, as he came off the bench and scored a try in the 22-23 defeat to Hull FC at the DW Stadium.

He has also played games for Betfred Championship side Swinton Lions on dual-registration, while also representing Ireland at international level.

But after making eight appearances this year, including coming off the bench in Wigan’s last five league games, Byrne is pleased with where he is at in his young career so far.

He said: “It was a rocky start for me, trying to find my feet but I feel I’ve improved and started to get my confident within myself.

“There’s been a few injuries in the side, and it’s given me that chance to prove myself. Playing a few games for Swinton gave me more experience of trying to take control of the middle of the park and it has given me more confidence to replicate it at Wigan.

Byrne made his Wigan debut against Hull FC earlier this year.

“I don’t really look at the media; I just focus on training and myself. I keep working hard in training and listening to the coaches – it doesn’t matter what anyone else is saying.

“I love playing with Ollie and Morgan. I know their game and having played with them at Under-19s level it gives us all confidence that we are ‘all in it together’ and have each other’s back.

“We have to keep our feet on the ground and keep working hard, and hopefully we’ll keep our positions within the team.”

Peet stated: “What Liam doing is probably the most impressive. Ollie and Morgan have been outstanding players and highly rated since they’ve picked up a ball, whereas Liam came from nowhere.

“He wasn’t on any Scholarships; he was only in the Academy for a brief time. The fact he is performing in the toughest of positions and playing big minutes is a credit to him.

“Everyone in the Club understands that his rugby league development is probably at a younger stage than Ollie and Morgan, but he brings a big body to the team and he’s competitive. I enjoy working with him – he’s a great kid.”

The third chapter of Wigan’s gifted trilogy is Halifax-born Smithies, who learned his rugby league trade playing for amateur club Siddal ARLFC, alongside current Wigan teammate Amir Bourouh.

Smithies caught the eye of former scout Tom Bickerton in 2015, as he went on to join Wigan’s Scholarship system, whilst also representing England at Youth level.

After picking up the 2017 Warriors Under-16s Player of the Year of the Year Award, the loose forward added to his collection a year later as he inspired his team with a Man of the Match performance in the Under-19s Grand Final victory over Leeds Rhinos at the DW Stadium.

In his first year overall at Under-19s level, Smithies sustained a permanent place in the team as a strong back bone, making 22 appearances, including 20 starts, whilst also scoring three tries.

Smithies was part of last year’s Under-19s Grand Final winning squad.

And after playing in three games and scoring a try in the opening fixtures of this campaign, the Yorkshireman was called upon by Lam to emulate the step up to the first team that Partington and Byrne had previously done.

Smithies made his debut for the Club at the age of 18 and became the first player born in the current century to play for Wigan, by coming on as a sub in the 42-0 win over Catalans Dragons in March.

After committing his future to the Club by signing a new four-year contract, alongside teammate Partington in June, Smithies has carved out a striking reputation on the Warriors first team, making 17 appearances so far, including eight starts – six of which have been in Wigan’s last six league games.

On his season thus far, Smithies said: “It’s gone really well. I didn’t think I would even make my debut for the first team this year so to play as many games as I have, I’m happy with how it’s gone.

Smithies in action for Wigan this year.

“I did pre-season with the Under-19s and I thought I might have had a loan somewhere, but I’m grateful for the chance Lammy (Lam) has given me.

“I’m looking forward to getting a full pre-season with the first team under my belt, but first and foremost I want to keep pushing to get stronger, fitter and faster until the end of the season and we’ll see where we finish. It’s exciting times.”

On Smithies, Peet noted: “Morgan has got there quickly but the important thing for him is to keep progressing to the next level.

“He’s establishing himself as a first team player, but he needs to become one of the best players and win things, get the Man of the Match in big games, play international level and win international games.

“All the best professionals are always looking at what their next achievement is rather looking at what they’ve done before.”

He added: “All three players are doing their jobs and playing the games. Whoever is in front of them is irrelevant to them – that’s how the game needs to be played. For them to survive at this level they have to play physical and with some intent in their defence.

“When they carry the ball they are getting whacked as well, so it’s important they are getting both sides of the ball – they take the good and the bad and it can only be beneficial to them.

“I’m proud and happy for them because they work hard to get to where they want, but I’m equally proud of the players who get through to the first team but don’t quite get the same attention. As long as they’re good people and work hard then I’ll always be proud of them.”

Both Peet and Lam praised Wigan’s Academy scouts and coaches for finding such talent, with five players aged 20 or under, including Partington, Byrne and Smithies, as well as Bourouh, Joe Shorrocks and Ethan Havard making their first team debut in 2019.

Amir Bourouh is one of Wigan’s Academy graduates this season.

Peet said: “We’ve consistently had a good Academy. If you look at Morgan and Ollie, they’ve only been in our system for three years. The credit needs to go to the amateur game and to the people who helped identify them at a young age. It’s a good production line and long may it continue.”

Lam added: “They’re young talented players who have come through our system here at Wigan. The coaches and scouts have done a great job with where they’ve got to at the moment, and my job is to get them up to speed in how to fit in within the first team.

“The rugby league part is important, but they are also good people. We are forever working with them to make sure they’re making the right choices and decisions every day and every week.”

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