KRIS Radlinski rolled back the years to help Sean O’Loughlin celebrate his testimonial in style.
The former Test full-back came off the bench in the final quarter, for his first match in more than five years.
And while the match ended in defeat, the result did not take the shine off a fantastic evening in which captain O’Loughlin was saluted – and a clutch of young-guns announced themselves on the big stage.
O’Loughlin himself got his first taste of senior rugby league in a testimonial game for Andy Farrell a decade ago. And on the evidence presented last night, many other home-grown players are destined for bright futures in the game.
For a large chunk of the game, teenage forward Jack Hughes – with two competitive games on his CV – was the most experienced player in Wigan’s line-up.
Yet they went toe-to-toe with Huddersfield’s line-up of seasoned stars and, though the game slipped from their grasp, they finished it with their reputations very much enhanced.
Each side scored three tries in the opening half, but Wigan’s failure to convert their chances – coupled with Danny Brough’s masterful display with the boot – gave the visitors an 18-12 advantage.
Shaun Lunt extended Huddersfield’s lead soon after the restart, but the home side’s young players battled bravely, and were still within touching distance in the final few minutes.
Wane’s nine-man bench contained eight players yet to figure in the first-team... and one player with 350 games, 30 international caps, two Cup Final man of the match awards and an MBE under his belt!
Radlinski’s selection was the obvious headline-grabber in a team blending youth and experience: Many of his team-mates last night were still in nappies when the former Test No.1 made his Wigan debut back in 1993.
Exciting youngsters such as Joe Mellor, Logan Tomkins, Matt Russell, Jack Hughes and Sam Powell started in a team alongside old heads Thomas Leuluai, Gareth Hock, Chris Tuson and O’Loughlin himself.
And there were also starts for two of the four off-season recruits – Kiwi centre Anthony Gelling and prop Gil Dudson, who both also figured in the 22-6 victory at Hull KR last Sunday.
Huddersfield coach Nathan Brown fielded a strong squad featuring Brough, Keith Mason and Eorl Crabtree, as well as four players who started their careers at Wigan – Lee Gilmour, Luke Robinson and young forwards Jon Molloy and Matt Sarsfield.
A bruising exchange in the middle of the park set the tempo for a good standard, strongly-contested friendly.
Wigan were the first to score when a spill by their opponents inside their own half surrendered possession – and the home side made it count.
O’Loughlin drew the defence, released the ball with a deft flick pass and Leuluai’s ball to Gelling allowed the imposing centre to squeeze in at the corner. Winger Jack Murphy failed to convert.
Huddersfield were quick to reply, Brough following up his own towering bomb to score after Joe Mellor had failed to defuse it. The error was cruel on Mellor, who moments earlier had taken the sting out of a great Giants chance by cutting down Leroy Cudjoe when he had pierced the defensive line.
OLoughlin’s storming break – which suggested he was fully recovered from his off-season hip surgery – drove his team down the field, and five quickfire errors by the Giants allowed Wigan to camp out on their opponents’ line.
That weight of possession and Wigan’s persistence eventually paid off, when Hock crashed onto a short pass and scored a try, which Hughes was again unable to convert.
O’Loughlin and Leuluai left the action for well-earned rests midway through the half, giving chances to Welsh prospect Rhodri Lloyd and John O’Donnell.
And teenager O’Donnell ensured it would be a memorable night, as he wriggled over to cross on the stroke of half-hour, moments after a bone-jarring tackle by Murphy had denied Luke George in the corner.
Huddersfield, though, finished the opening half strongly, and scored two tries in 10 minutes to take a grip of the contest.
A neat passing exchange produced a try for speedy full-back Greg Eden, Brough’s conversion locking the scores at 12-12.
And then big Eorl Crabtree thundered through the line on a powerful charge, Brough maintaining his perfect display with the boot to wedge a six-point margin between the sides at the interval.
Lunt burrowed over to put Huddersfield 24-12 ahead soon after the restart, but the young players continued to give a great account of themselves against experienced opposition.
They played with spirit, composure and energy, and while fans waited patiently for O’Loughlin to re-emerge after a long spell, and Radlinski to re-emerge after a considerably longer spell, they were encouraged by the talent on show.
Jet-heeled back Russell and lively winger Hughes both caught the eye, while the one foreigner in the side Gelling – sporting a distinctive blond rinse – made some solid contributions at right centre.
Dudson returned from the bench to add muscle to the pack, before the fans got what they had waited for.
The sight of Radlinski shedding his training gear triggered spontaneous applause and whistles, and he was followed onto the pitch by O’Loughlin.
Former full-back Radlinski slotted in at left-side second-row, and was quick to get involved, making a strong tackle and testing Cudjoe with a determined drive soon after.
Prop Tom Spencer beat Radlinski to a loose ball close to the line, and Murphy’s conversion dragged the margin back to six points.
The home fans yelled encouragement as they chased a match-levelling late score, but those hopes were snuffed out when Bob Fairbank finished off Eden’s break. Radlinski was always a safe bet to produce a try-saving tackle, just as O’Loughlin was to be the official man of the match. Both eventuated before the full-time whistle, and skipper O’Loughlin took the microphone at the end of the match to thank the 5,000-plus crowd for turning out on a cold night to give their support.
Wigan’s senior team complete their pre-season programme at Salford next Tuesday, while a young side will take on Leigh three days later.