IT was billed as the biggest game of the year and it didn’t disappoint.
An absorbing quarter-final contest packed with thrills and skills, fightbacks and fighting spirit, was played out at breakneck speed.
There were 13 tries scored in total, many of them outstanding efforts which either delighted or deflated members of the sell-out crowd and fans watching on TV.
And in the end, Wigan emerged the victors, their Wembley dreams intact, and with the extra satisfaction of denying the holders the chance to defend their trophy in the final.
The 20-point winning margin doesn’t even hint at the drama which unfolded at the Halliwell Jones. The Super League champions raced into a 22-0 lead but then conceded four tries without reply, to have their seemingly unassailable lead cut to a fragile two points.
Michael Maguire’s outfit, though, showed their steely resolve to wrest control of the contest with two Josh Charnley tries – the second a stunning length-of-the-field effort – and kept their composure until the death.
“It was a fantastic performance,” said prop Paul Prescott.
“They tested us, and to mentally kick on and win it was a great effort.
“With 20 minutes to go they were at us, and we stuck to what we needed to do.”
Charnley’s double was the obvious headline grabber – particularly after his scorching break for the second – but there were heroes across Maguire’s side.
From the irrepressible Sam Tomkins, whose full-back mastery came in harsh contrast to an unusually below-par Brett Hodgson, to the kicking brilliance of Pat Richards, to the tireless efforts of Sean O’Loughlin.
Each member of the side carried out their role admirably and, though they will resist talking about Wembley yet, they will go into the semi-final with confidence sky-high.
As expected Wigan welcomed back three Test internationals – Ryan Hoffman, Thomas Leuluai and Joel Tomkins – to the side, while Prescott’s return from a hamstring lay-off squeezed recent signing Ben Cross out of the picture.
By contrast, Warrington were missing influential stand-off Lee Briers, forcing Tony Smith to play centre Chris Bridge in the play-maker role.
Smith stoked the flames before the game by declaring his side were rugby league’s real entertainers, but both sides produced flashes of brilliance in an engrossing opening half in which Wigan went 22-0 ahead, only to leak three tries before the break which.
Warrington are notoriously quick out the blocks and they set the tempo early, forcing the visitors to defend their line before they countered spectacularly with two rapid-fire tries in the ninth and 11th minutes.
Attacking to the right, Richie Myler bolted out of the line, inviting Leuluai to race in the clear and send Harrison Hansen over. And then, from the resulting kick-off – which dribbled off the tee – Warriors doubled their advantage, with Sam Tomkins racing from dummy-half, bursting through the defence and showing his pace to beat the chasing cover.
Richards, who hit two goals to make it 12-0, was using the wind and sun to torment his former Wests Tigers team-mate Hodgson with an aerial assault.
One of his errors presented the visitors with a drop-out and Wigan turned the knife, when Andy Coley thundered through an opening to score against his home-town club.
Finch and Richards went close before the latter finished off a slick handling move in the corner to make it 22-0.
Game over. Or so many thought. But Wolves responded when a passing move spanning the full width of the pitch saw Matt King beat Charnley.
King’s left-side break minutes later sent the supporting Myler over and Hodgson hit the goal, reducing the gap to 12 points.
Wolves were in the ascendancy and though Sam Tomkins’ invention provided some relief, the home side grabbed their third when Michael Sullivan – rated the best player in Super League by Finch – dashed past Gareth Hock from inside his own half and found Myler in support.
Warrington’s hunger to keep the ball alive was serving them well, and shortly after the re-start David Solomona powered over in the 42nd minute.
But some big plays from Wigan helped them turn the tide.
First, Sam Tomkins defused a towering bomb in the direct sunlight, and that set finished with Finch and Hoffman combining sublimely, Carmont showing his strength and class to send Richards racing over for a try he converted.
O’Loughlin and Sam Tomkins did incredibly well to track Joel Monaghan down from Finch’s intercept, but the Wolves were able to keep their hopes alive from Ben Westwood’s superb offload, setting up the position to allow King to bulldoze beyond Charnley.
Charnley wasted no time getting his own back, arcing beyond King’s reach to restore their eight-point advantage.
And he then sent the visiting fans into raptures with his second effort.
Sam Tomkins had the ball ripped from his grasp near his own line, Charnley scooped it up 3m from his own line, pin-balled off Joel Monaghan and stepped beyond Hodgson to gallop the length of the field.
Richards’ goal put them 14 points ahead.
Not even Warrington could come back from that knockout blow.
O’Loughlin added a touch of gloss to proceedings late on, picking up a loose ball from another magical play by Sam Tomkins.