WIGAN’S brave and desperate hopes of clutching a World Club Challenge triumph slipped from their grasp at an energy-charged DW Stadium last night.
A nerve-shredding, epic encounter saw the Super League champions go toe-to-toe with the NRL Premiers.
They traded blows with the Dragons as they desperately attempted to enter the record books as the only club to claim four WCC titles.
But for all their efforts, all their invention and desperation, they couldn’t break down an impenetrable Dragons defence in the final hour of the match.
Cameron King scored the only try of the second-half, but it proved enough for the visiting team to ensure the NRL stretch their record of winning this encounter into a third year.
Wigan’s fans filed out of the DW Stadium disappointed, yet proud of the players’ efforts. Once the dust has settled on this encounter, they will reflect and curse the missed-chances that conspired against the Warriors – and pray they get another chance soon to show the rugby league world their abilities.
The Dragons out-scored the home side three tries to two during an opening half that unfolded at breakneck speed. But Paul Deacon’s superior goal-kicking – and a Sam Tomkins drop-goal – gave Wigan a slender 15-14 advantage at the break.
George Carmont and man of the match Brett Morris each recorded doubles, but Wigan’s failure to seize their chances in the second-half ultimately proved costly.
As expected, Martin Gleeson passed a fitness test on his hamstring, but there was still a late drama to Wigan’s team selection, with Stuart Fielden withdrawing with a knee injury. With Jeff Lima banned, it left the Warriors with just two specialist props, Andy Coley and Paul Prescott, and Chris Tuson was handed his first appearance for Wigan, since dropping out of the side two weeks before their Grand Final triumph last October.
With another back-rower, Lee Mossop, also filling in at prop, it invited comparisons to the 1994 team that took on Brisbane and won with only one specialist front-rower (Neil Cowie) in the side.
Like the previous three WCC-winning teams, last night’s line-up had a strong local emphasis, with 10 products of their academy system in a 17-man squad that also contained two returning Wiganers, Gleeson and Paul Deacon.
NRL champions St George-Illawarra were without their coach, Wayne Bennett, but their line-up certainly didn’t lack big names, with Test stars Mark Gasnier, Darius Boyd, Nathan Fien and Matt Cooper in their star-studded squad.
The players entered through a guard of honour – containing heroes from the famous victory over Manly in ’87 – to a wall of noise from a packed DW Stadium that was 1,000 short of capacity. And after an impeccably-observed minute’s silence for the victims of the Christchurch earthquake, the game began at a frantic pace.
From the second tackle, Carmont’s bone-jarring hit on Beau Scott gave Wigan early unexpected possession, and from that attack, Deacon’s measured chip fell invitingly into the path of Carmont, who leapt to regather and cross. The stadium erupted. With 1m13s on the clock, the Warriors were 4-0 up.
Deacon hit the conversion, and when Fien was penalised for a high tackle on Coley, he slotted the goal to make it 8-0 inside four minutes.
St George-Illawarra refused to panic, and when Gleeson spilled the ball, they took full advantage, as an unselfish piece of centre play from Cooper saw Morris squeeze over at the corner. Jamie Soward’s peculiar goal-kicking ritual – a cross between Jonny Wilkinson and a twinkle-toed tap dancer – did not serve him well and his attempt drifted across the face of the posts.
Despite an ordinary kicking game, Wigan continued to look good, but once again the Dragons pounced on an error – this time a Paul Prescott penalty, conceded on the fifth tackle – and from that position Cooper stepped beyond Gleeson and touched down. Soward tagged on the extras to give the visitors a 10-8 advantage at the midway point of the first half.
Sam Tomkins was coming in for special attention from the Dragons’ defence – one off-the-ball challenge by Matt Prior particularly bad – and he earned his side a penalty for a tackle infringement, but Deacon was off-target.
If it appeared like Lady Luck may have been deserting Wigan, she soon donned her special black, cherry and white top again. A pass from Harrison Hansen deep in Wigan’s own half went to ground, and for a moment fans held their breath as they expected the visitors to pounce. Instead, it bounced kindly for Carmont and he raced over from 60m out.
He may be the oldest player in the side, yet he also must be one of the quickest, and with Deacon hitting the extras, it put Wigan 14-10 ahead.
But momentum continued to see-saw, and for a side that had not played together in a competitive match since September, the Dragons showed good cohesion to spread the ball across the attacking line, and Morris was duly on hand to cross for his second.
Mike McIlorum typified Wigan’s spirit when he chased back to defuse a try-scoring chance when Morris chipped on, and while Warriors lost Gleeson to injury just before the break, they finished the opening half in control.
They bombarded the Dragons’ line, and with seconds before the hooter, Sam Tomkins struck a drop-goal.
Both sides appeared edgy and nervous at the start of the second-half but Wigan, roared on by their loyal faithful, defended magnificently to preserve their advantage. Twice they went close to scoring near to the Dragons’ line, and at the other end, Darrell Goulding was just inches from an intercept and a long-range effort. Sadly, he couldn’t regather and it proved costly, as from the repeat set King drove over from dummy-half to touch down. Soward’s goal put the Dragons 20-15 ahead as the battle edged towards the hour-mark.
The visitors fought desperately to put the game to bed, and they nearly did so when Gasnier’s wizardry on the right led to Cooper arcing towards the corner on the left. But Joel Tomkins tracked him back and dragged the Kangaroos centre into touch, and from that play – and with back-to-back penalties – Wigan were able to march downfield.
Sam Tomkins’ angled grubber just had too much strength for the chasing O’Loughlin to reach.
Just when it appeared that the Dragons were on the ropes, they countered majestically from deep, and it needed a desperate ankle-tap by Joel Tomkins again to deny Morris a certain try.
From that position, Soward kicked a drop-goal to open up a six-point cushion with 10 minutes remaining. Wigan desperately launched a salvage mission, but they failed to conjure a try that would have put the game into extra-time.