WIGAN’S inability to win the big games at home continued last night as they let the chance to climb top of the ladder slip from their grasp.
A series of missed-chances cost Michael Maguire’s side in an eventful, exciting and energy-charged derby that gradually became a damage-limitation, and pride-saving, exercise.
Debutant Brett Finch scored their only try in a performance littered by handling errors. In truth, the Wolves’ line was rarely threatened by a pedestrian attack that only occasionally displayed the ruthless edge that Maguire had demanded in the build-up.
The result propelled the Wolves three points clear at the top, though the Warriors have a game in hand.
Maguire will look for big improvements before next week’s trip to Leeds, but of equal concern may be the fact that home advantage is proving more of a burden than a boost.
Wigan may be unbeaten away from home in their last 10 matches going back into last year, but by sharp contrast, last night’s defeat stretched an unwanted run of losing to heavyweight rivals at the DW Stadium to six matches.
Since they were edged out by St Helens last June, the Warriors have been beaten by Warrington, Huddersfield, Leeds, St George-Illawarra and now the Wolves again on their own turf. During that period they have won just four times at the DW – and on each occasion it was against lowly opposition (Salford, Bradford and both Hull sides).
Wigan were down 12-6 at the break with Finch’s try sandwiched by touchdowns from Matt Blythe and Joel Monaghan. The latter went over again in the second-half and, as Wigan became more and more anxious, Richie Myler compounded their misery.
Under normal circumstances, the return of Sam Tomkins from suspension would have dominated pre-game conversation – but not last night.
Finch was handed his debut in a cauldron of a DW derby and, despite having not played any match in more than six months, Maguire named the veteran Australian at stand-off rather than on the bench.
His presence allowed Sean O’Loughlin to return to his preferred loose forward berth, Tomkins started at full-back in place of substitute Amos Roberts, while Liam Farrell missed out with a slight leg injury.
Warrington went into the game with confidence sky-high following their 82-6 mauling of Harlequins five days earlier.
Tony Smith’s outfit were unbeaten since their opening day, and welcomed back ex-Warriors hooker Micky Higham in the only change to last week’s line-up.
Recent games between these two sides have been nerve-shredding affairs, with honours split from their last six encounters.
And with top spot up for grabs – not to mention bragging rights – last night’s game always had the potential to be an explosive encounter.
With both sets of fans’ in vocal mood, Warrington gave early notice of their intent when Chris Bridge darted down the left flank, only for a chance to go begging when Rhys Evans cut inside when the pass was sent out to his wing.
Wigan countered quickly when O’Loughlin intercepted, and they went close to scoring when George Carmont crossed from a Thomas Leuluai high-kick, only for French referee Thierry Alibert to rule the effort out for obstruction in the build-up without consulting the video referee.
The action continued to swing from end-to-end and the Wolves struck first blood when Blythe finished off from a crisp exchange of passes, Brett Hodgson adding his first of four from as many attempts.
That was the first time all year that Wigan had not scored the opening try and wounded, they marched down field and pressured the Wolves line, only for Alibert to again deny them when he ruled Darrell Goulding had knocked-on as he went to regather Leuluai’s angled kick.
Finch was organising the troops as if he had been a part of the side all year but for all their endeavour, Wigan didn’t boast their usual fluency with the ball. In defence they contained Warrington in the middle but the visitors frequently found gaps by rapidly swinging the ball from edge-to-edge.
Shrewd No.6 Lee Briers targeted 19-year-old Charnley’s wing and twice his errors gifted the visitors good field position, but they failed to capitalise.
The introduction of fresh props Jeff Lima and Lee Mossop injected some spark into Wigan and with Sam Tomkins his usual lively self, they drew level through new-boy Finch.
He shaped to pass, attacked the line and then followed up to regather his own kick that dissected the defence – to obvious delight. Charnley – who retained the goal-kicking duties, despite Tomkins’ return – was on target to make it 6-6.
The Wolves’ ability to earn repeat sets on the home line sapped Wigan’s energy reserves and Tony Smith’s side reopened a six-point lead when the ball was again sent to the right flank and Monaghan crossed in the corner after the half-hour mark.
Tomkins’ stunning 40-20 presented Wigan with a chance to draw level before the break, but the Wolves foiled Finch’s dummy half drive for the line and then – a minute later – Tomkins’ stab in-goal beat the chasers after Hoffman had gone agonsingly close.
The ferocity of the encounter was highlighted by a bust-up between Ben Westwood and Tomkins, but Wigan’s desire was not matched by their execution in the early stages of the second-half.
First Finch spilled the ball close to the line, then the stand-off was involved in a mix-up with Chris Tuson, giving Warrington the possession from which they wedged a 12-point gap between the side from Monaghan’s second try, courtesy of Briers’ hanging kick.
Andy Coley spared his side’s blushes when he tracked back Bridge and dislodged the ball but the Warriors couldn’t catch a break, as Hoffman had a try ruled out seconds later by the video official for an earlier knock-on by Carmont.
Finch left the action in the 55th minute to be replaced by Amos Roberts, but returned just three minutes later when Leuluai was injured as he denied Evans in the corner with a superb, desperate tackle.
Warriors had to chance their arm as they chased victory, but the risk proved costly as Myler plucked a long pass out of the air and raced over from just inside his own half to make it 24-6.