WIGAN remain on course for a dream first outing at the new Wembley, but they made hard work of seeing of Bradford at a wind-swept Odsal yesterday.
A scrappy, uninspiring first-half failed to improve in the second, and ultimately they were grateful for a quickfire salvo from Brett Finch and Pat Richards shortly after half-time to settle an unconvincing performance.
Those touchdowns increased their 10-6 half-time advantage to 22-6, but Patrick Ah Van and Shad Royston responded to close the margin to just four points and set up a nerve-shredding finish which was only settled when Liam Farrell plunged over with six minutes remaining.
Wigan were 1/25 overwhelming favourites before kick-off, Bradford’s crumbling Super League form – and Warriors’ resurgence – persuading bookmakers to forecast a heavily one-sided contest. Judging by the gaping holes throughout the terracing, the home fans felt the same way.
The Bulls went into the match winless in their last six league matches; Wigan, by stark contrast, had won their last five and rattled up the points in the process.
But they showed little of that golden form for much of yesterday’s encounter. They lacked urgency and shape, and their flat performance underlined just how vital Sam Tomkins is to the side.
He left the action minutes after grounding a first-half try which saw Gareth Raynor sent off for hitting the No.1 high as he crossed the line.
By the halfway point of the first-half, the BBC may have been regretting their decision to televise an encounter littered with penalties and desperately lacking quality.
But the game was brought to life with an incident-packed conclusion to the opening half containing one red card and one yellow.
The tie was only 80 seconds wide when Richards was across the line courtesy of Ryan Hoffman’s pass, but video referee Richard Silverwood rightly ruled he had spilled the ball.
Wigan’s habit of irritating Steve Ganson allowed the Bulls to repeatedly stroll down field on the back of a string of penalties. And the home side opened the scoring when Royston challenged Sam Tomkins to collect Kyle Briggs’ monstrous kick, the loose ball eventually finding its way to Elliot Whitehead who was awarded a try once Silverwood was satisfied there was no knock-on. Ah Van’s conversion put the Bulls 6-0 up.
Two kicking faults kept Wigan pegged back on their own line, as first Richards’ kick-off was carried by the strong winds over the dead-ball line and then Sam Tomkins’ clearing kick was charged down.
A crisp passing move in the 19th minute ended when Goulding - recalled at centre after George Carmont failed a late fitness test with a leg injury - sent Richards over unopposed in the corner, the reigning Man of Steel failing to convert in such swirling winds.
And Sam Tomkins extended their advantage minutes later with a weaving run towards the line. Raynor caught the electric No.1 as he closed in on the line and knocked him out, in an apparent wrongly-timed attempt to dislodge the ball.
After a delay while Tomkins was treated, Raynor was sent off and Richards hit the conversion – but there was no subsequent penalty for the infringement.
The winger’s dismissal brought the game to life with some unforgiving hits from both sides. The simmering tensions eventually boiled over when Kiwi Jeff Lima was penalised for dumping and then, in the 37th minute, sin-binned for illegal use of the forearm.
Leading by a slender six points, Wigan hoped for an early try to settle their nerves and they got it, when Briggs’ poor kick went as far as Brett Finch, and the Australian sprinted 70m to cross. Richards’ conversion made it 16-6.
And from the next set they extended their advantage as Goulding was unleashed on the left side and showed great poise to release Richards with a sweet inside pass. The Australian’s goal put Warriors 22-6 ahead.
But that was as good as it got for the army of travelling away fans, as Ah Van finished off stylishly in the corner to reduce the score to 22-12.
Wigan’s failure to punish Bradford’s suicidal handling kept the game wide open as it entered the final quarter. Briggs’ grubber dissected Warriors’ defence and Shad Royston coolly re-gathered for a try which Ah Van bettered, closing the margin to just four points.
The try injected a shot of energy into the home side as they pushed frantically for a match-winner, and though Wigan struggled to find their groove, they improved enough for Farrell to charge over from Finch’s pass, wedging open an eight-point margin.
Ah Van’s last minute try was scant consolation for the Bulls.
Referee: Steve Ganson
Bradford: Royston; Raynor, Platt, Whitehead, Ah Van; Briggs, Jeffries; Lynch, L’Estrange, Hargreaves, Elima, Sibbit, Langley. Subs: Olbison, Burgess, Kopczak, Diskin.
Wigan: S Tomkins; Charnley, J Tomkins, Goulding, Richards; Finch, Leuluai; Coley, McIlorum, Mossop, Farrell, Hoffman, O’Loughlin. Subs: Lima, Deacon, Prescott, Tuson.