CHALLENGE Cup holders Wigan were given an almighty fright in an electric Cup tie before eventually beating Featherstone.
The Warriors emerged from a full-flooded, dramatic, colourful and controversial encounter with the win which took them to within 160 minutes of a return to Wembley.
But they were certainly made to work for it, and the final score doesn’t hint at the nerve-shredding moments when many of Wigan’s faithful may have feared their Cup defence was going to end to a lower-league side.
Warriors were twice behind in a pulsating first-half before going in at the break with a 16-12 lead thanks to tries from Sean O’Loughlin, Darrell Goulding and Gareth Hock.
And further touchdowns by Thomas Leuluai, Josh Charnley and Hock eventually saw them home, but not before they again were given scares by the Championship outfit, who had beaten Castleford in the previous round.
At times, Wigan appeared rattled, blotting their performance with uncharacteristic errors. O’Loughlin, McIlorum and Leuluai all had their moments, and Charnley was a class act on the wing, but this was far from a vintage display.
Shaun Wane had said he expected an ‘old school’ encounter, and he certainly got the right stage, with a long queue of traffic snaking through the Yorkshire village towards Post Office Road’s compact ground, which is now named after a nightclub in nearby Pontefract.
Wigan played down the infamous slope in the first-half, and after a nervy opening in which Jeff Lima spilled the ball, they opened the scoring in the fourth minute through O’Loughlin, who collected Brett Finch’s well-weighted pass to cross. Tomkins took the kicking duties and nailed the goal.
To their credit, Rovers tried some inventive attacks to crack open a ferocious visiting defence, led by McIlorum, who produced a series of unforgiving hits.
Eventually, they got the breakthrough their enthusiasm warranted in the 19th minute, when Gelling lost the ball taking a regulation drive, and Tommy Saxton evaded Harrison Hansen’s clutches to cross out wide.
Liam Finn was unable to strike the conversion, but when Wigan were caught offside from the restart, Rovers pressed again. Ian Hardman chased Finn’s dissecting kick, and after numerous replays, video referee Ian Smith awarded the touchdown, which Finn bettered.
Incredibly, unexpectedly, Wigan were 10-6 down. But they lifted the tempo to draw level, Mossop rumbling down field to put them into solid field position, and rapid hands by Tomkins and O’Loughlin found Goulding, who had the poise to finish.
Hansen received treatment after clashing heads with Stuart Dickens, an incident which the RFL may scrutinise, with the latter appearing to head-butt the Wigan forward. When action restarted, McIlorum’s needless interference at the play-the-ball gifted Finn an easy two points.
Featherstone’s niggling tactics continued to frustrate Wigan, whose captain O’Loughlin squandered possession for retaliating against Saxton’s neck-grip in a tackle. But on the stroke of half-time, the Warriors retook the advantage, Hock surging onto Finch’s accurate pass to storm over. Charnley’s conversion – taken despite having a laser pen pointed at him - made it 16-12 at the break. Silverwood, whose last game in charge had been the Test between New Zealand and Australia, alerted stewards about the incident.
Rovers began the second-half like the first, simmering with enthusiasm. But Wigan’s composure and superiority began to show, and after staving off a couple of half-chances, they wedged open a 10-point lead when Leuluai powered over in the 54th minute.
But Rovers wouldn’t lie down and when Finn pinched the ball from near-namesake Finch – seemingly illegally, in a two-man tackle - and broke from deep, it set up the position for Raynor to sweep over and cut the deficit to six points.
The home fans sensed an upset, but the Warriors held their nerve, swept down field and – after Gelling was taken out off the ball – they restored their 10-point lead on the opposite wing, Charnley latching onto Leuluai’s neat cut-out pass.
Hock put the crowning polish on the victory by collecting his own grubber to touch down, Charnley striking his third conversion.