WIGAN’S hopes of reaching the Grand Final took a hammer-blow as they suffered a morale-sapping loss to their fiercest rivals.
A desperate late rally wasn’t enough to prevent them tumbling to their second defeat in three weeks and, in doing so, they let the prize of advancing directly to the semi-finals in two weeks’ time slip from their grasp.
The reigning champions must now navigate a tougher route to Old Trafford, with a sudden-death showdown at the DW next week and – should they win that - a semi-final away from home the following week, possibly against St Helens again.
Wigan’s fighting spirit was evident until the final minute of yesterday’s derby, which was played out in front of a disappointing crowd of just 12,893.
But they struggled to break down St Helens’ well-drilled line. Their once-ruthless attack lacked guile and precision, and a team that prides itself on defence will not be pleased to have conceded a string of soft tries.
Joel Tomkins’ touchdown midway through the second-half closed the score to 26-18 and gave the game a grand-stand finish, but Wigan never led at any stage of the contest in which Saints largely dominated, and Michael Maguire’s men must improve if they are to prevent their play-off hunt from fizzling out.
This was the fifth derby meeting between these sides this season, and after the opening two play-off games resulted in landslide wins for Warrington and Catalan, Sky Sports bosses must have arrived at the DW Stadium hoping it would be as nail-biting as their Cup semi-final date, or as nerve-shredding as their Good Friday epic.
From a neutral point of view, it didn’t disappoint - but sadly for Wigan’s fans the result certainly did.
Maguire made just two changes to the team that humbled Crusaders 42-10 the week earlier, Ben Cross and Andy Coley replacing Chris Tuson and Eamon O’Carroll.
The return of Australian prop Cross came just a month after he broke his arm, an injury that Wigan thought would end his season. But the Widnes-bound front-rower surprised medics by making a rapid recovery, and came off the bench with his forearm heavily strapped.
St Helens were missing Leon Pryce, Gary Wheeler, Chris Flannery and Kyle Eastmond, and went into the match as the bookies’ outsiders.
Yet the underdogs produced a savage bite early on, taking a well-earned 14-6 lead into the interval and showing that they meant business.
From the minute Paul Deacon fumbled the kick-off, Saints showed their attacking intent, and it took Sam Tomkins’ try-saving tackle to deny Tom Makinson.
James Graham was stopped by Sean O’Loughlin minutes later, and with the visitors enjoying the lion’s share of possession, there was a sense of inevitability when they took the lead in the 13th minutes.
Veteran full-back Paul Wellens capitalised on some soft defending to cut between Harrison Hansen and Deacon, then stepped beyond stranded Sam Tomkins to touchdown.
The try was converted by Jamie Foster, a former Wigan student - and it was another junior from this Parish extended their advantage minutes later.
Saints switched the direction of attack, Michael Shenton slipped out of George Carmont’s tackle to send halfback Jonny Lomax – a former Orrell St James player - under the sticks.
In between those two tries, Andy Coley was played on report for a high shot on Makinson.
Wigan appeared stunned to be12-0 down after 20 minutes, and tried their best to get a foothold in the contest.
But they were cagey and flustered, lacking the venomous streak for which they have become renowned.
Brett Finch engineered a wing move for Richards but the move broke down when O’Loughlin spilled the inside pass, and the errors were contagious.
Josh Charnley knocked on in his own 20m, a turnover in possession which resulted in Foster stretching their lead to 14-0 with a 28th minute penalty.
Wigan turned up the pace and attacked with width, but struggled to find a way through Saints’ galvanised line.
Sam Tomkins was their most potent threat and managed to threaten the line in the 33rd minute, but spilled the ball as he darted over.
In a frantic finish to the first-half, Sam Tomkins and Finch both went to within inches of scoring, as they kept the ball alive to try and twist Saints’ line out of shape. Eventually their relenting pressure paid off, O’Loughlin laying on the final pass for Richards to cross in the corner. The winger dashed infield before grounding the ball to improved the angle of his conversion, which he successfully struck to cut the deficit to a far more digestible eight points.
Maguire’s half-time words of inspiration certainly had the desired effect from the restart. They defended with a lot more vigour, their shape was much improved, and after working their way down field, Finch carved out an opening to send the supporting O’Loughlin over. Richards’ conversion made it 14-12.
But Saints wasted no time in reasserting their dominance, Wellens theatrically diving over for his second after Makinson had cut loose to send them into Wigan’s half. Foster maintained his 100 per cent goal-kicking record, taking Saints’ advantage to 20-12.
Sam Tomkins tried desperately to spark his side into life. And when he was taken out as he chased his own measured chip, the home side bombarded Saints’ line. Charnley thought he had scored when he crawled under a knot of bodies, but video referee Stuart Cummins ruled the winger had been held up over the line.
That missed-chance proved costly, as minutes later Saints tightened their grip through Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s try to make it 26-12. The home side battled desperately to claw their way back and after powerful charges by Farrell and Hansen softened the line, Leuluai managed to slip a pass out of a tackle to Joel Tomkins, who showed great strength to ground the ball. Richards’ conversion made it 26-18 – and sent the winger fourth on the club’s all-time points scoring charts, ahead of Colin Tyrer.
But Richards, like the rest of his team-mates, was in no mood to celebrate as Saints clung on to claim the win which takes them to the semi-finals – and leaves Wigan’s hopes hanging in the balance.
Wigan: S Tomkins; Charnley, J Tomkins, Carmont, Richards; Deacon, Finch; Lima, Leuluai, Coley, Hansen, Hoffman, O’Loughlin. Subs: Farrell, McIlorum, Prescott, Cross.
St Helens: Wellens; Makinson, Shenton, Meli, Foster; Gaskell, Lomax; Graham, Roby, Puletua, Soliola, Wilkin, Clough. Subs: Moore, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Dixon, Armstrong.
Referee: Phil Bentham
Starman: Sam Tomkins