WIGAN grinded out a nerve-shredding victory to maintain their unbeaten start to their Super League title defence.
The win has propelled the Warriors to the top of the ladder, above Huddersfield, with a game in hand – and the nature of this win made it all the sweeter.
A heavily-depleted side edged a tense opening half by 8-6, courtesy of Sean O’Loughlin’s early try and two Josh Charnley goals.
Those same two players combined early in the second-half for Charnley to cross for a try, and the winger settled the nerves in the final few minutes with a penalty that opened up an eight-point gap.
Ryan Hoffman put the crowning glory on the win with a late touchdown, but this victory should be put down to a stunning defensive effort.
In a gripping – often frantic – final half-hour, Huddersfield threw everything they had at the Warriors but failed to pierce a line that oozed character, energy and bite.
Huddersfield’s strong start to the season, coupled with Wigan’s mounting list of absentees, saw the home side go into last night’s encounter as the bookmakers’ favourites.
The Giants – who had won four of the past six fixtures between these sides – won four of their opening five matches and Nathan Brown had a full compliment of players to select from.
Michael Maguire, by contrast, was forced to recall rookie Joe Mellor from his loan stint at Harlequins after three players were added to the five already ruled out. Mellor never got on.
Sam and Joel Tomkins were hit with suspensions last Tuesday and Paul Deacon was ruled out with a head injury.
With Martin Gleeson out the picture and four others sidelined – Stuart Fielden, Brett Finch, Pat Richards and Eamon O’Carroll – it presented chances for Chris Tuson and Amos Roberts to return and press their claims.
Wigan have been starting games in whirlwind fashion, taking the lead in all of their matches this year.
And they repeated the same trick against the Giants by storming 6-0 ahead in just the third minute.
Leuluai’s angled kick was collected by Josh Charnley, who passed inside under heavy traffic for supporting skipper O’Loughlin to dive over.
Charnley was handed the goal-kicking duties in the absence of Deacon, Richards and Sam Tomkins, and though inexperienced with the role – he booted just six for the Under-20s last year – his tricky effort was on the mark to give Wigan a 6-0 lead.
With both sides boasting physical packs, the early exchanges were always going to be played out in the middle of the park as the forwards battled for supremacy.
Wigan’s defence was well-marshalled and disciplined, and an early bone-jarring hit by Andy Coley on Keith Mason – and some unforgiving tackles from the typically industrious Mike McIlorum – set the tone for what was to follow.
Clear cut chances were few and far between.
Wigan’s line was first pierced when Jamie Simpson was set free by a sweeping move sparked by the impressive Kevin Brown, but Charnley forced the Australian three-quarter into touch.
Then, at the other side, a well-worked move nearly reaped rewards in the 20th minute when Amos Roberts floated a super pass to Goulding on the right wing.
Realising he was being tracked back, Goulding kicked inside for the pursuing Roberts to follow – only for the ball to bobble over the deadball line before he could reach it.
Huddersfield’s response was immediate, as David Fa’alogo’s smashed through and put the visitors under intense pressure, only for young centre Joe Wardle to knock on inches from the line later in the set-piece.
Roberts had not played full-back since last spring and was coming under an aerial bombardment from Danny Brough.
He let two hanging kicks bounce, the second of which proved costly as an awkward bounce, and Goulding’s unfortunate knock-on, allowed ex-Warrior Luke Robinson to dive over for a try just minutes after coming off the bench.
Brough made no mistake with the conversion.
Roberts spilled another high kick from the next set as Ryan Hoffman limped out of the action with 25 minutes played.
With referee Ben Thaler keeping interruptions to a minimum, the action flowed from end to end.
Charnley rescued Wigan again by punching the ball from Leroy Cudjoe’s grasp close to the line, but Roberts was looking increasingly nervous under Brough’s towering kicks, and Wigan breathed a sigh of relief when the video referee ruled out a Luke O’Donnell ‘try’ for a knock-on.
Struggling to break down a well-drilled Giants line, the visitors opted to kick a penalty in the 39th minute when Thomas Leuluai noticed the markers weren’t square and attacked from dummy-half.
Charnley made no mistake from in front of the sticks to make it 8-6, and extended their advantage early into the second-half with a fine try.
A neat offload from Paul Prescott saw Lee Mossop charge down field and, from the position, O’Loughlin’s pin-point cross-field kick was coolly collected by the dashing Charnley.
The 19-year-old couldn’t convert from the sidelines.
Hoffman returned to the fold for Farrell – who produced another fine, all-action effort – and found Wigan under immediate threat as three quickfire penalties allowed the home side to camp out on their opponents’ line, but Simpson’s claims for a try were wiped away by video referee Ian Smith.
Wigan countered magnificently, but also fell foul of Smith when Roberts had a touchdown ruled out for obstruction by Harrison Hansen on Wardle.
Huddersfield dominated possession and enjoyed the better position for a large spell, and the visiting side’s defence received a thorough examination as they repelled a series of raids orchestrated by the scheming partnership of Brough and Brown.
Wigan had the final say, however, as Charnley’s penalty gave them some breathing space.
And then the winger sent Hoffman over for a try with a looping inside pass, the big Australian diving over to the delight of the travelling supporters.