If you’re a rugby league fan, then you’ve heard of Wigan. If you’re not, there’s probably not much chance you could find it on a map. It’s a tiny northern town home to just over 80,000 people, famous for pie-eating, a pier that doesn’t actually exist and Northern Soul music and it might just be the sporting capital of England.
Last week the rugby team won the Challenge Cup in a dour and largely forgettable final at Wembley. The Warriors beat Hull FC 16 – 0 to win the cup for the record 19th time and return the trophy to what many fans believe is its spiritual home.
During the 80s and 90s when the rugby league team won the Challenge Cup for eight seasons in a row, rugby was the only show in town. But at the same time Dave Whelan was putting in the ground work with the football club, Wigan Athletic, to transform the club.
Despite being relegated last season, Athletic beat Manchester City at Wembley to win the FA Cup. The same Manchester City who have spent the best part of a billion pounds building there team were rolled by a Ben Watson goal.
So when Sam Tomkins scored to put the cherry (and white – sorry) on the cake for the Warriors, it was the first time in the history of the competitions that the FA Cup and the Challenge Cup had been held in the same town or city. Quite an achievement for a town thought to have the highest rates of mental health problems in England.
But the tentacles of Wigan spread further than just football and rugby league, sons of the town are dominating rugby union in the northern hemisphere too. Sometime in the not too distant future three of seven England backs could come from Wigan – Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton are regulars and Joel Tomkins isn’t thought to be far away from breaking in to the centres.
Step up a level and you’ll find Andy Farrell as assistant coach for the England team, a role he also filled for the British and Irish Lions. Over the border in Wales, another Wigan legend Shaun Edwards is defence coach and has won a host of trophies during his spell with Wasps.
Olympic gold medallist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins isn’t from Wigan – he was raised in London – but he’s now a cheerleader for the town. Since moving to the area to be near Manchester, the home of British cycling, he fell in love with Wigan Warriors and attends as many games as he can. Despite his heroic achievements for British Cycling, Wiggo’s son is desperate to be Sam Tomkins. That must be a kick in the nuts.
When you consider that roughly half the population is female, that means from about 40,000 men the town dominates the rugby landscape in this country. It is a phenomenal achievement, but probably recognition that there isn’t anything to do in Wigan other than play sport.