THE Willows has been the stage for several significant markers in Wigan’s recent history.
It was at the crumbling ground where the cherry and whites’ eight-year unbeaten Challenge Cup run abruptly ended in 1996, and it would later be the venue for Ian Millward’s first game, Frank Endacott’s last game and Luke Davico’s only game!
But for the quirks of the Cup and play-offs, last night’s match was almost certainly Wigan’s last at The Willows, before it is torn down later this year.
Yet there was little nostalgic reminiscing before kick-off, with the topic on every fans’ lips the intensifying rumours that Martin Gleeson was heading for an early exit from the Warriors.
The centre wasn’t listed in the Wigan team, though his absence was no surprise – he limped out of the World Club Challenge five days earlier with a hamstring injury and wasn’t in the provisional squad.
That handed Stefan Marsh his first chance in the Wigan team this season, while Josh Charnley took Amos Roberts’ place on the wing and Kiwi prop Jeff Lima returned from a two-week suspension, with Chris Tuson missing out.
Michael Maguire said before the match that his players were ‘over’ the disappointment of their World Club Challenge loss, both emotionally and physically. He wasn’t looking for a backlash as much as a decent performance and two points – and he got both.
It wasn’t the most polished display, but given events of five days earlier, it was better – and far more energetic – than many expected.
Salford were impressive in flashes, but let themselves down with their poor handling, and though they contributed to a largely entertaining contest, they rarely troubled their classy opponents.
The visitors took a 16-10 lead into half-time, but would have been disappointed with the defensive lapses which contributed to Salford’s two tries. On the balance of play they looked the better side in the opening 40 minutes, with Thomas Leuluai particularly sharp, scoring one of their three tries and having a hand in the other two. His all-action display stretched into the second-half, adding a second try and shining at the heart of his side’s attack.
The Kiwi World Cup winner was the architect of the opening score in the third minute when he broke from deep, drew full-back Luke Patten and sent Harrison Hansen over for a try on the very ground where his dad enjoyed a successful career.
With Salford going from bad to worse by the minute – kicking out on the full, knocking on and failing to kick on the last tackle were among their early sins – there was a sense of inevitability to Wigan’s second try in the 10th minute. A sloppy dummy-half pass was picked up by Hansen, he fed Leuluai, who pinballed between defenders and over the line. Paul Deacon failed to convert, making it 10-0.
Patten atoned for his erratic opening to drag Salford back into the contest, slipping through the Wigan defence and unselfishly sending Ashley Gibson over for a try which Stefan Ratchford converted.
That try injected a dose of enthusiasm into the Reds, and they almost drew level in the 22nd minute, when Sam Tomkins failed to defuse a towering bomb and the ball bounced invitingly for Jodie Broughton, but the move broke down.
The introduction of former Wigan fans’ favourite Iafeta Paleaaesina from the bench in the 24th minute prompted louder applause from the travelling fans than the home supporters.
And Wigan’s faithful were cheering again within a minute, when Lee Mossop crossed for the easiest of touchdowns when Deacon’s chip was allowed to bounce as Leuluai challenged Patten for it.
Salford – who leaked 98 points in their first two matches – proved themselves to be niggly opponents and before the break had a spell of pressure on Wigan’s line.
When they failed to pierce a well-drilled defence, they again opted to test Sam Tomkins’ nerve under the high-ball, and when he failed to collect cleanly, it offered the Reds a solid position from which Rob Parker burrowed through the defence from dummy-half to close the scoreline to 16-10.
Warriors started the second-half brightly. With Hansen and Mossop driving the ball up strongly and Sam Tomkins probing, they attacked with real pace and opened up a 12-point lead, when Leuluai showed his strength to cross from dummy-half.
Worryingly, Lima was penalised for an alleged dangerous tackle – his two match ban was for two ‘chicken wing’ tackles in his only other match. Wigan will discover on Monday if Lima will face the disciplinary panel over last night’s indiscretion.
Sam Tomkins threatened with a soaring break from his own line, before Wigan extended their lead when a sweeping move was finished off by Charnley. Deacon nailed the touchline conversion, pushing their advantage out to 28-10.
Yet Salford’s persistence paid off when Chris Nero ran in a try in the 68th minute, converted by Mark Sneyd, to restore a 12-point margin. Farrell went agonisingly close to scoring and then Sam Tomkins raced 80m down the touchline.
He was tracked back, but from that position Darrell Goulding dived over to seal an ultimately comfortable win.