WIGAN may not have won the league leaders’ shield last night, but that did little to dampen the atmosphere at the DW Stadium.
Playing their first game at home since landing the Challenge Cup silverware, the Warriors brought the curtain down on the regular 27-round campaign in style, running in seven tries to go into the play-offs with confidence.
A bumper crowd of 19,104 packed into the DW Stadium – ensuring Wigan finished the campaign with the record of their best average home attendance since records began, beating the 16,040 four years ago.
The fans – many wearing old replica tops, at the club’s invitation – were on their feet long before kick-off, showing their appreciation as around 60 ex-players were welcomed on to the pitch to make a guard of honour.
From Gary Connolly to Kelvin Skerrett, Bill Ashurst to David Robinson, Andy Gregory to Henderson Gill, the former heroes applauded the modern heroes as they were led out into an electric DW by captain Sean O’Loughlin.
In typical fashion, Wigan raced out of the blocks and took a third minute lead through Brett Finch. Crusaders, though, gave them a contest and the home side’s 18-6 lead at half-time was comfortable, but in no way comprehensive.
That changed after the break as Sam Tomkins helped create tries for Liam Farrell and Josh Charnley’s second.
Maguire made just two changes to the side humbled by Warrington a few days earlier, fit-again Chris Tuson replacing the banned Gareth Hock, and Hull FC-bound Eamon O’Carroll coming in for Andy Coley, who was rested.
Crusaders, playing their final match of a turbulent three-year Super League existence, threatened early on.
Wigan’s defence held firm before they countered majestically, sweeping upfield through Richards, and then adding the points when Brett Finch darted through an opening to touch down in the third minute.
Richards’ first of seven conversions – from as many attempts – put them 6-0 ahead.
With Finch pulling the strings, they threatened again minutes later, but O’Loughlin was prevented from grounding the ball.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though, and Crusaders pounced on Joel Tomkins’ knock-on to bombard Warriors’ line, only for Sam Tomkins to defuse Lincoln Withers’ troubling kick.
Crusaders’ early promise underlined their determination to bow out with pride, and eventually, their determination paid off when loose forward Peter Lupton crashed through the line for a try. They drew the scores level through a conversion by Clinton Schifcofske, who minutes earlier had pulled off a tremendous try-saving tackle to deny Paul Deacon inches from the line.
Wigan thought they had edged back ahead when Harrison Hansen scooped up a loose ball in the corner and dived over, only for referee Robert Hicks to rule a score out for a knock-on.
Second-rower Tuson made his first appearance in eight weeks on the half-hour mark, coming off the bench for Hansen, and quickly got back into the old routine with some determined drives.
Maguire’s men were finding it tough going, but when the spectacle fell dangerous close to flat-lining, Sam Tomkins revived it with a mesmerising run.
He took a quick tap on the 20m line and turned on the after-burners to ghost through a scattered defence. Eventually tracked down at the opposition 20m, he fed Tuson and the ball was advanced to the opposite side for Charnley to race over for his 24th try of the year.
And that was followed by another try on their next set, as Melbourne-bound forward Ryan Hoffman powered his way over to open up a 12-point margin at half-time.
A touching presentation to Wigan’s junior players at half-time saw ex-Warrior Paul Johnson leave the Crusaders dressing room to present the Johnson-Edwards Memorial Trophy – named after his brother, Craig, and Billy-Joe Edwards who were killed in a car accident – to Under-20s player of the year Sam Powell.
Just like the opening 40, Wigan drew early blood in the second-half.
Sam Tomkins’ crabbing run tormented the Crusaders, and on the next tackle Farrell bumped off four defenders on a thunderous charge to the line. Richards maintained his impeccable kicking to make it 24-6.
The visitors had plenty of effort but squandered an alarming amount of possession, and the only surprise about Wigan’s next try was that it took them until the 53rd minute to score it.
O’Loughlin’s piercing break put them in a solid position, and Sam Tomkins teased the defence before feeding Charnley for his second. Richards masterfully added the sideline conversion.
And the Australian winger sent them further ahead from the kick-off with a try he created with a soaring touchline break.
No.1 Tomkins showed his defensive abilities too, halting Andy Bracek with a fantastic try-saver on the hour-mark, and then his brother took the champions to the 40-point mark with their seventh try of the game.
Richards went agonisingly close to scoring his second, only to be denied by retiring Crusaders No.1 Schifcofske, who signed off in style with a solid display.
A breakaway score by Jarrod Sammut proved scant consolation for the Crusaders, who ended the campaign bottom of the ladder because of Wakefield’s victory over Bradford.
The Wigan fans charitably showed their support to the Crusaders players as they lapped the pitch for the final time in the top-flight.