St Helens 16 Wigan 26

Wigan Warriors' George Williams is tackled by St Helens' Luke Douglas  and Morgan Knowles
Wigan Warriors' George Williams is tackled by St Helens' Luke Douglas and Morgan Knowles

Captain fantastic Sean O’Loughlin led Wigan to a stunning, gutsy derby triumph which kept their top-four dream well and truly alive.

But put this one down to character as much as their attacking prowess.

Any win at St Helens is a reason for celebration, but this came just six days after the crushing loss in the Challenge Cup Final to Hull. Given that circumstances, only the harshest of judges would pick holes in this gutsy performance.

An early Oliver Gildart double helped them to a 14-4 lead at half-time. And another two-try blitz in the second-half put them 24-4 up - before Saints rallied and tested Warriors’ character in a gripping finish.

There were eye-catching displays across the line-up.

O’Loughlin was colossal - he was quickly recalled from a second-half break to lead the side home.

Elsewhere, Sam Tomkins was flawless, and the left-side combinations slick and sharp, with George Williams pulling the strings and finishing with five goals.

Wakefield’s win at Salford kept the Yorkshire side in fourth spot, and a point ahead of fifth-placed Wigan.

But the Warriors play Trinity in their home-straight - after matches against Hull FC and Castleford - meaning even if other results don’t go in their favour, their destiny remains in their own hands.

The result nudged Saints down to three-points outside the top-four, though they do have a better for-and-against than both Wigan and Wakefield, and arguably an easier run-in which includes fixtures with Huddersfield and Salford.

Ben Barba’s place in the Saints starting line-up was a major talking point in the build-up - a selection which shifted Jonny Lomax into the halfback roles alongside ex-Warrior Matty Smith.

Wigan made only one change to the side which lost at Wembley, with Jack Wells taking a bench spot in place of ill prop Ryan Sutton.

The stake were raised by the fact both sides headed into the game outside the top-four.

But the big question was whether the Challenge Cup Final loss had taken too much out of the Warriors - against a well-rested home side buoyed by Barba’s availability.

The visitors answered that emphatically in a whirlwind opening which saw Gildart cross twice within the opening five minutes.

In the second minute, Sam Tomkins released Burgess on the left flank, and he fed his supporting centre. His second came straight from a Saints error, after Barba’s pass went behind Ryan Morgan, who flapped at the ball and Gildart had the poise to snatch it up and the pace to beat Saints’ marquee full-back to the line.

With Williams tagging on both conversions, Wigan had a dream 12-0 lead.

A penalty by Frank-Paul Nuuausala, in possession on fifth tackle, put his side under immediate pressure and forced the visitors into a spell defending their line.

But they held firm, and moments after Tony Clubb had been held up over the line, they opened up a three-score lead with a 14th minute Williams penalty.

Video referee Ben Thaler was called on twice to rule on Barba ‘tries’ within seven minutes. After scrubbing out the first - replays showed Zeb Taia had knocked the ball forward in the build-up - he awarded the second, in the 23rd minute... much to the surprise of many Wigan fans.

Thaler ruled Anthony Gelling stripped the ball from Barba, who then touched down the loose ball. In a cruel irony, it had more than shades of Clubb’s ‘no try’ at Wembley six days earlier.

Mark Percival couldn’t convert, but Saints pressed from the restart, and it needed a stunning try-saving tackle by Tomkins to deny jet-heeled Welsh winger Regan Grace in the corner.

Wigan’s attack stagnated, but defensively, they repeatedly showed their tenacity.

A bone-crunching tackle by Williams halted Percival close to the line, and they preserved their 10-point margin by half-time.

The home side started the second-half the brighter, and it needed a strong tackle by Willie Isa - earlier placed on report for attacking the knees of Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook - to stop Walmsley.

Wigan struggled to punch their way out of their own half, but they persisted. And just when doubts over their abilities to conjure more points began to surface, they struck with two rapid-fire tries to open up a 10-point buffer.

First, Anthony Gelling was on the end of a crisp, well-executed left-to-right shift which plucked Saints’ line out of shape. And from the restarting set, they broke from deep to enxtend their lead in stunning fashion.

Gildart’s flick pass released Burgess, who scorched down field and had the presence of mind to use the supporting Williams, who slid over and then tagged on the extras.

If it all seemed too good to be true, Zeb Taia bulldozed over for a try which Percival converted, to provide a sobering reminder they still had a job to do in the final quarter.

That try stemmed from a Wigan mistake, and another - a penalty for a tackle infringement - piggybacked Saints down field. There, eventually, Tommy Makinson raced over for a try which Percival converted, cutting the margin to just eight points with nearly a quarter of the match remaining.

O’Loughlin, a towering influence earlier, was quickly recalled from a break to try and steer the tiring side home. Wigan’s kicking game was much-improved on a week ago but how they would have benefited from a 40-20 as they repeatedly work their way out of their own half.

Still, they had the grit and game-management to see them home and, after two skirmishes which saw Willie Isa sinbinned, Williams added a match-sealing penalty.

St Helens: Barba; Makinson, Morgan, Percivan, Grace; Lomax, Smith; Amor, Roby, Thompson, Taia, Wilkin, Knowles. Subs: Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Peyroux.

Wigan: S Tomkins; Marshall, Gelling, Gildart, Burgess; Williams, Leuluai; Nuuausala, McIlorum, Clubb, Bateman, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Subs: Powell, Tautai, Isa, Wells.

Referee: Robert Hicks

Half-time: 4-14

Attendance: 15,248

Starman: Sean O’Loughlin