Wigan Warriors 4 St Helens 23
Not even the return of John Bateman and home debut of Frank-Paul Nuuausala could sugar-coat the bitter pill of losing to St Helens for Wigan.
A two-try seven-minute onslaught late in the first half ensured Saints did enough damage to their arch-enemy to take a fifth straight win of their revived campaign.
Wigan needed the win to keep pace with next week’s Challenge Cup semi-final opponents Hull FC at the top of the table, and avoid the prospect of slipping to third place over the weekend, while Saints needed the chance to snatch an extra home game in the Super 8s if Catalans slip-up at Widnes on Sunday.
Instead, a season high crowd of 20,049 witnessed a game which only provided sparks the derby is famed for in fits and starts, with Nuuausala ending his big night in an early bath and the prospect of a disciplinary hearing on Tuesday following a scrap with Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in the closing stages.
Anticipation was amped-up during the week with the club’s #ourderby marketing campaign reflecting on goosebump-inducing memories. And there were big names in the corporate boxes such as ex-RU British Lion and Warriors player Andy Powell, Wigan legend Martin Offiah and Coronation Street’s Cath Tyldesley to illustrate the fact Wigan v Saints clashes are a stand-out event away from the permutations of league points.
Nuuausala’s home debut was celebrated by eager fans posting pictures of themselves over social media sporting masks of their new hero, but that was arguably overshadowed by the return of Bateman.
The early-season Man of Steel favourite started in the second row in his comeback from an eight-week club-imposed ban for his part in an off-field scrap with a team-mate, and showed flashes of the gritty spirit and aggressive running which has endeared him to Warriors fans.
Wigan, without the banned duo of Taulima Tautai and Josh Charnley welcomed back prop Dom Crosby for his first game since picking up an injury in the 7-0 win away to Widnes last month.
But they were still without Liam Farrell, Joel Tomkins and Anthony Gelling, as well long-term absentees Michael McIlorum and Tony Clubb.
Saints fans, despite possibly bringing their smallest following for a league game ever to the DW Stadium, were still heard, and took 53 seconds to boo Sam Tomkins for the first time when he collected the kick from the away side’s opening set.
But there was no room for jovial exchanges on the pitch.
A scuffle erupted after three minutes when Tomkins caught Matty Fleming around the chops on the Warriors line - with Mark Percival slotting the penalty to put his side in front.
And with 10 minutes gone, players were grabbing shirts and sharing choice words again when Dan Sarginson over-enthusiastically pursued Adam Swift into the advertising hoardings in front of the North Stand, with referee Phil Bentham again awarding a penalty to the visitors.
Not that it put Wigan off their high-tempo approach - with George Williams slotting a neat grubber through for Lewis Tierney to chase and open his side’s account with an impressive burst of speed to win the race to the ball. Little did anyone know it would be their only points of a long night.
Drizzle greased-up the pitch and some scrappy, but satisfyingly confrontational exchanges followed until Percival stitched-up the gap with another penalty after 23 minutes.
This time, Willie Isa had tipped Jordan Turner above the horizontal in the tackle.
With an airtight scoreline - flashpoints punctuated the next phase with Nuuausala coming on after patrolling the touchline with his substitute card held in his mouth like a guard dog straining on its leash.
His first few collisions with ball in hand helped scatter Saints defenders but Bateman was determined not to let the big man overshadow him - and the returning star reminded fans of what they had missed by making himself a nuisance to bring down.
Tomkins took a high shot from Percival, with the Saints man only giving away a penalty for his crime to the annoyance of Wigan fans.
But the game was about to be turned on its head.
Saints took the lead with seven minutes to go until the break, when Percival added to his tally with a try he converted himself after taking a neat pass from Jonny Lomax.
Despite being behind, Wigan fans probably felt no need to panic until Morgan Knowles won the race to a kick from Jordan Turner to boost his side’s advantage - and at 16-4, Saints suddenly looked well in control.
While Salford were staying within touching distance of league leaders Hull FC over at the AJ Bell Stadium, Wigan were struggling to do something about their ugly recent post-Easter record against their most bitter rivals.
Tomkins did his best to weave and duck through flailing arms and Saints shirts to get over the line eight minutes after the restart. He did enough to half convince Bentham who referred the call to video referee Joe Cobb with the onfield decision of ‘try’.
Cobb was less impressed with Tomkins’ acrobatics though, and took the unusual step of overruling his on-field colleague.
Wigan continued to press but Tomkins’ second-half nightmare began when, on a repeat set, he knocked-on 20 metres from Saints’ line, and the way Kyle Amor high-fived his team-mates suggested they thought they had the game in the bag.
There was nothing flamboyant about Saints’ attack. There were no flames flying from the hob or guitar solos - just a methodical execution of a plan to keep Wigan pegged with simple sets and mean defence.
And when Tomkins knocked on from a high kick with 25 minutes to go - the noise from the North Stand suggested the pubs on the other side of Billinge Hill would be the ones holding lock-ins for the evening.
Like a racer being lapped, Wigan continued to circle the course at high speed in the hope events further up the road could bring them back into the contest.
But there was a sense of inevitability about attacking plays which stuttered and petered out - and even though only two scores down - the most hopeful in the ground probably knew the game was gone when Isa spilled a chance with 15 minutes to go.
Luke Walsh pinged over a drop-goal with seven minutes to go which put Saints three scores in front and sealed the win.
There was still time for another scrap when Nuuausala hit McCarthy-Scarsbrook off the ball - with two separate bouts erupting between the players before Bentham could send both to the sin bin - and with empty stands in the home end, James Roby twisted the knife with the only try of the second half.