As weeks go, Warrington Wolves head coach Steve Price won’t have had too many like this.
Following on from the highs of the Challenge Cup semi-final triumph over Hull FC on the weekend previous, Warrington were defeated by Catalans Dragons on a chaotic and unsavoury afternoon in the South of France.
The fallout from the game was larger than just two points missed. Marquee player Blake Austin will miss a number of games, possibly including the Challenge Cup final at Wembley after sustaining an ankle injury in the defeat.
Sometimes in rugby league, when it rains, it pours, and with a number of pre-existing injuries already to contend with, including Josh Charnley, the last team Price would probably want to face is league leaders and fellow Challenge Cup finalists St Helens.
With Price having to shuffle his pack for Thursday’s game, it opens up an opportunity for Luther Burrell to make his first home start for the club.
The former England rugby union international joined the Wolves in June, and his coach feels he is ready to make the step up against the toughest of opposition;
“He’s been good, he’s been really positive and upbeat around our organisation. It’s not going to be ground breaking, it’s going to be little steps, but he’s going to be full of energy and he’s played on the big stage before.”
Alongside Burrell, Price is set to hand a baptism of fire to two 17-year-old players who have come through the club’s academy system in Riley Dean and Josh Thewlis, and he’s confident that young talent will continue to feature in his squad;
“It’s huge, from when I came to the club we wanted to create some space and more opportunities for our scholarship and our academy and to get two 17-year-olds playing Super League is quite special, and there’s still some good kids to come through.”
Having already fallen to defeat to St Helens twice this season, Price knows that Thursday’s clash is a crucial chance to throw down a marker ahead of the Challenge Cup final at the end of the month, but is under no illusions of the size of the task his side face;
“They’re a quality football team, they do everything fast with pace and execution. They’ve got a lot of quality players that do everything together. But that’s the challenge. We’ve got a good footy team here too and it’s about getting it right on the day.”
He may remain optimistic about his sides chances this week, but there can be no denying the hole that Blake Austin’s absence will leave in the team in the coming weeks. The halfback, who has recently been called into the Great Britain squad, has lead the Man of Steel charts for most of the season and has been attributed to much of the Wolves success, but Price insists that the long term ambitions must take precedent over short term issues;
“You’ve got to understand your players, and you’ve got to understand their psych, but also not put them in a dangerous position down the track where it may negate a big game. We’ve got a really good high performance unit here and I feel that we manage players well.”
The Wire have wasted no time recruiting to cover the absence of Austin, bringing in Catalans Dragons halfback Matty Smith on loan until the end of the season, and the former England International could make his debut against his former employers Saints, on Thursday night.
Although not too much may ride on this game in terms of league positions or silverware, as we approach the final stretch of the season, there can be no underestimating the impact this game may have. Rugby League is always physical warfare. On Thursday night, it’s psychological as well.