The 18th Man Column: Sam’s the man as Wembley return secured

Sam Tomkins makes a break
Sam Tomkins makes a break

The sign on the pitch held aloft by the players at full time said it all. WE’RE GOING TO WEMBLEY.

Wigan produced a determined performance to see off Salford Red Devils in a pulsating semi-final at the Halliwell Jones to set up a showdown against current holders Hull FC later this month.

The Warriors dominated for most of the game but will be disappointed with the second 20 minutes. After the first interchanges, Salford struck twice in three minutes and added a penalty shortly after that to come from 12-0 down to lead 14-12 at the interval.

A lot has been made of the refereeing and video refereeing performance but Wigan showed great spirit, especially after losing Gelling in the second half and Sam Tomkins for 10 minutes apiece, to not concede any tries when down to 12 men. It was pleasing to see the likes of Isa, Sutton and FPN pull out arguably their best games in a Warriors shirt in such a high pressure situation, especially considering the criticism each has received (in some cases justifiably) this season. This coupled with standout performances from Bateman, Davies, McIlorum and Sam Tomkins, gives you the feeling Wigan could yet make a late charge for the top four.

Wane has come under fierce criticism this season, particularly around the playing style but Wigan played some great stuff in the semi. Tomkins’ break which led to Burgess having a try chalked off, the ingenuity of Burgess with his cross field kick for McIlorum’s outstanding pick up to score were two highlights in particular. With Manfredi due back shortly and Farrell just missing out on this game, Wane probably has the strongest squad he will have available this season at his disposal right now and hopefully the results will now start to reflect this. I am pretty sure that most clubs would swap seasons with Wigan in a heartbeat right now with a trophy won, a shot at the Challenge Cup and still very much in the hunt for the Grand Final. Only the League Leaders’ Shield is definitely out of reach, but most fans would place this trophy as fourth in the list of priorities at the start of the season.

Salford will be desperately disappointed to miss out on Wembley after such a great season, but I feel that Ian Watson’s coaching skills will be put to the test over the next few weeks as the Red Devils need a win and quickly or the season could fizzle out. Shaun Wane on the other hand will no doubt be ecstatic that the Warriors have another date against Hull at Wembley following the 2013 triumph. Hull though are a very different proposition from that day and will likely head into the game as favourites.

This week sees the Warriors cross the Pennines to take on Leeds at Headingley as the Super 8s kick off. Neither team has won away in this fixture for four years and now would be a great time for the Warriors to address that. Leeds will still be down after the semi defeat to Hull and it will be interesting to see if McDermott makes many changes and see how the Rhinos react. The Warriors position of being three points off fourth place doesn’t look to bad when accompanied by a Challenge Cup appearance and with Castleford taking on St Helens and Hull taking on Salford, the Warriors could well close the gap further on the top four and not many teams will want to take on an almost full strength Wigan team with confidence returning.

David Bailey

Sunday was a glorious day for all Wigan Warriors fans. The weather may have tried to spoil the fun, but it wasn’t enough as cherry and white prevailed.

I’m so happy to be finally going back to Wembley, it’s been a long four-year wait.

Some of my greatest memories as a Wigan fan in the Super League era are from days out at Wembley, it’s one of the best days – if you win.

The game with Salford was brilliant. I thought we played some superb rugby, and controlled the game for at least an hour.

There was only a 15-20 minute spell in the first half in which we mentally switched off and let them back into the game.

We saw the best of Sam Tomkins again, and it was great to see.

Before this game, I was calling for Sam to step up, and use this game as a chance to show everyone that he’s still world class.

While it was eventually Tomkins who got man-of-the-match, I thought Michael McIlorum was absolutely outstanding. If a player ever deserved a try in a game it was McIlorum last Sunday, and what a try it was. The pick-up from the Burgess kick, in the rain, was top notch.

One thing I didn’t realise at the time, being caught up in all the tension and emotion, was that we nilled Salford in the second half. That second 40 seemed to go on forever. I’d lost track of who scored when and to actually nil them in that half took some effort.

Not only did we score (and get one wrongfully disallowed) some lovely tries, but our defence was brilliant.

I could go on and on about last Sunday and praise each player, but I’ve only got 400 words and I need to talk about tomorrow’s game with Leeds.

Tomorrow night is going to be very tough. Don’t let last week’s result for both sides trick you.

We’ve really struggled at Headingley in recent years, only winning twice in the last seven meetings. We’ve no Sam Powell, who’s suspended. But we could see the return of both Liam Farrell and Dom Manfredi - although I’m not holding my breath for the latter. It’s a huge game and were flying after last week. Let’s take all that momentum down there and start Super 8s with a win.

Ben Reid

Carried away by the wonderful chants and songs of the Wigan faithful, it was perhaps a little difficult to take in our achievement in reaching yet another Wembley Challenge Cup Final. The performance was not slick by any means, but a certain steeliness is growing in our squad having weathered the storm of so many first choice players being sidelined for much of the year so far. Our youngsters, as always, step up and do an almost unbelievable job at filling in but some need a rest now as their young bodies have been over exposed. But the future of our club is bright as names like Marshall, Davies, Wells, Bretherton, Gregson and Shorrocks look set to become household names here in Wigan and benefit hugely from their exposure to Super League, developing into high quality assets in their own right. On the day, I was hard pushed to separate Sam Tomkins or Willie Isa as my man-of -the-match. Tomkins, the poster boy of Wigan Warriors, needs no explanation as he weaved his magic for much of the game, except the 10 minute break he had for daring to challenge for a ball – anyone would think he was a full back. But Willie Isa, I feel, goes under the radar and many simply do not appreciate the work rate that this lad has going on week in, week out. All I would say is how much of an impact did Big Ben Murdoch Masila have on Sunday? Big Ben who? Isa had him covered, smothered and totally nullified down that side when usually he rips defences apart. So my award would probably go to Isa. The huge challenge we face is to live up to that performance at Headingley and show Super League that we mean business in 2017. Having secured the first trophy awarded this year and in the final for the second, we need to shine against Leeds and make some of the 2017 big boys nervous. No doubt Daryl Powell is smugly confident that his Castleford side can cope with most teams, but how long is it since they won a big game? Been a while Darrel, eh. Finally I must put a plea out to the Wigan fans at away games. A little rowdy behaviour is acceptable when excited youngsters who can’t hold their beer get a rush. But throwing anything is totally out of order. A coin hit me on the head, a bottle was thrown on the field and each time anything exciting happened, lager was thrown over the crowd from behind. I implore any fans to stand up against this behaviour and report the individuals to the stewards who will be able to remove them from the ground. Let’s try to educate these idiots, or remove them from our sport before they spoil it for everyone.

Darren Wrudd

It feels so good to be back at Wembley. Once our second home, with “only” two wins in 14 years it’s somewhat of a barren spell for us, even if plenty of other clubs would be delighted with that record. My fourth ever game was the 1985 classic, as an eight-year-old I apparently burst into tears when Kevin James scored early to put Hull in front. I’d clearly not yet learned about the mindset of a Wigan player. This mindset was once again needed to get past Salford as we gave away an excellent start and early lead to an enthusiastic Salford and some fairly harsh refereeing calls. The pass that led to Salford’s first try seemed no different to me to the one Wigan had called forward for a disallowed Tom Davies try. I was also staggered to see Joe Burgess’ effort disallowed for losing the ball short of the line. I’ve no doubt he lost the ball at some point but the fact is there was no conclusive evidence of when that was. Ben Thaler repeatedly stated he could not see when the ball was lost, and with the onfield decision being “Try”, surely this should have led to the score being awarded. Instead, Thaler looked at the same angle he had already reviewed and decided he could after all see the ball had been lost before the line. Staggering.

Fortunately, thanks to an outstanding second half display, the decisions didn’t come back to haunt Wigan. Was I alone in screaming at Micky McIlorum to kick the ball forward instead of trying to pick the ball up in such shocking conditions? Apologies Micky, I should have had more faith, what a sensational pick up at full speed in such appalling conditions and a well deserved try for an all action performance. Todd Carney’s best performance for Salford gave them hope, with two outstanding 40/20s, and two sin binnings for Wigan didn’t help, the second for yet another moment of madness from Anthony Gelling. How long before one of these costs us a game? We all love a character, and he brightens social media up with his Man of the People persona, but on the pitch the rugby comes first, sorry Gells, but you need to knock the madcap moments on the head. The game was finally made safe by a Gildart try after a Sam Tomkins drop goal on what was by far his best display since returning to the club. Looking to get far more involved, Sam took on the defence more in this game than the rest of the season combined and if he keeps that up the future looks bright for the Cherry and White.

Jon Lyon

It’s great to be going to Wembley again. After the first 10 minutes against Salford I thought it was going to be a 50 niller, it ended turning into a real competitive semi-final.

What got me about the game was the stops in play. It was one of our selling points and something to be proud of that rugby league was none stop action, for me that has changed in the last few years. I don’t know when it changed but weren’t we only supposed to stop the game if it was a head injury or a player was getting in the way of play? And if the player was injured he’d get one of his team-mates to play the ball for him whilst the game carried on? It seems now when a player gets tackled and gets a niggle he wants to keep tight hold of the ball and stop play like they do in football, allow the trainer to run onto the field and give them a breather, then, when they’re ready then the game will recommence. I’m slowly starting to see a bit of play acting creeping into our game due to this, I don’t want us to end up like football. Todd Carney milked a penalty on Sunday which led to him having to leave the field for a head test, so his alleged play-acting backfired. It needs to change as games are being dragged out for far too long, if the game on Saturday was a Friday night game it would have gone well past 10pm.

The referees need to sort themselves out, they are the ones who are allowing this and doing this-and-thats without the time it takes for them to come up with a video ref decision. What a joke that was with the Burgess try, Ben Thaler looked at the same clip 20 times and couldn’t chalk it off, so he looked at the same clip that he couldn’t find anything on and disallowed it, all the while stopping the game for five to 10 minutes. It’s killing the momentum of the games and it needs to stop.

If it were up to me I’d only allow the captains of each team to have three occasions during the game in which they can ask for a decision to be reviewed by the video ref, like say tennis or cricket and then the video ref has 30 seconds to come up with a decision.

Nobody turns up on match day to watch the referees but they seem to think we do. I don’t want to hear the ref shouting hold/set/go on Sky, I don’t want Stuart Cummings speaking about every decision and I don’t want referees stopping the flow of the game with over-zealous penalties, minor injures and indecisive video refs.

Come on refs, sort it out.

Rob Kenyon