Wigan 16 Warrington 23

Mark Riddell celebrates his try
Mark Riddell celebrates his try

IT was called the big one, and it had as many dips as the Blackpool ride of the same name.

Thrills came as often as spills, but sadly for the Warriors players, coaches and fans it was Warrington who ended a tense derby with the two points.

Tries by Chris Tuson and the superb Pat Richards had pulled Wigan level after they had trailed 16-6 early in the second-half.

But Ben Westwood’s 70th minute try, which he converted, put the visitors back into the driving seat and Lee Briers’ late drop-goal ensured Wigan will not be able to breathe easy as they chase the league leaders’ shield.

Just two points now separate these sides with five rounds remaining. The character displayed by both sides was admirable, and though both coaches will look for improvements in the countdown to the play-offs, there was enough evidence on display to suggest both could be realistic contenders for the grand final in October.

Both sides are renowned for their free-flowing, entertaining attacks, but a downpour just before kick-off made conditions slippery, and chances were few and far between.

Time and again, the ball squeezed from players’ grasps, and though the match had a grandstand finish, the errors conspired to prevent it from reaching the same epic scales of their past encounter.

Wigan’s 22-20 win against the wolves at the Halliwell Jones last February was one of the most nail-biting, frantic and fantastic matches of the season.

The fact both sides had cut away from the chasing pack in the months since, monopolising the top two spots, had ratcheted up the anticipation for last night’s encounter.

As thousands packed into pubs for the first Super League 3D experience, a record crowd for this fixture – 22,701 – packed into an energy-charged DW Stadium to see the battle between the league’s top two.

Warrington went into the match on the back of an impressive run of winning seven from their past eight matches, and welcomed talisman Briers back from injury.

But their record at the DW (JJB) Stadium offered them little comfort or confidence, having only won two of their 14 matches at the venue.

Michael Maguire stuck to the tried and tested squad that had so ruthlessly torn Salford apart a week earlier, though he made some positional switches, most notably Amos Roberts returning to his full-back berth and Sam Tomkins reverting to stand-off.

Sean O’Loughlin also took his loose forward spot, having been on the bench last week, and led the side out to a backdrop of deafening applause and pyrotechnics.

Warrington edged an opening half punctuated by penalties and littered with knock-ons.

It was a first half of two halves, with Wigan controlling the ball well – as they took a 6-0 lead – and Warrington handling appallingly at first before that trend reversed, Warrington wrestling control of the match and crossing for two tries to make it 10-6.

Wigan earned early field position when Adrian Morley had the ball dislodged, and from that set, Richards booted a second minute penalty to make it 2-0 after Garreth Carvell had tackled Sam Tomkins late.

Darrell Goulding, who went into the match as Super League’s top tryscorer with 22, had two early half-chances as Warriors attempted to capitalise on Warrington’s poor ball control.

Wigan thought they had scored, too, when Richards followed up Sam Tomkins’ weighted kick, collected and grounded the ball – only for the video referee to rule out a try, claiming he had lost control of the ball as he crossed the whitewash.

Their disappointment was only brief, as Warrington spilled possession from the restart, and Mark Riddell displayed enough strength and craft to force his way over for a touchdown that Richards couldn’t improve.

Stuart Fielden left the field dazed in the 16th minute, and did not appear to be the same player when he returned minutes later.

As the first half unfolded, Wolves’ handling got better and Wigan’s got worse, and the visitors began to impose themselves on the match.

After earning a drop-out, they attacked Wigan’s left edge and found space for Chris Hicks – who this week signed a new one-year deal with Wolves – to swerve past Roberts and score a try. Westwood pushed the conversion attempt across the posts, ensuring Wigan maintained a slender advantage.

That didn’t last long, though, as two handling errors kept the home side on the ropes, and Briers threaded a wonderful kick through and Richie Myler beat Roberts to the ball. Westwood’s conversion put Warrington 10-6 ahead.

Roberts looked vulnerable against Briers’ probing kicks, and Myler twice went close to scoring before the interval hooter.

The Wolves extended their lead early in the second-half. Chris Riley showed great awareness to release a kick as he was being ushered into touch, and Ryan Atkins was on hand to collect and touch down. That score – converted by Westwood – wedged open a 10-point margin.

But a pressure-relieving penalty took Warriors into Warrington’s half, and from that platform, Sam Tomkins unleashed Tuson with a majestic pass. The forward still had plenty of work to do to score, as he shed two tacklers with a neat right-foot step, and scorched over for a try that narrowed the gap to four points.

Referee Richard Silverwood missed a blatant Warrington forward pass in the subsequent passage of play, but a bone-jarring tackle by Goulding dislodged the ball from Richie Mathers’ grasp and took the sting out of their attack.

Warriors’ shape improved with the reintroduction of Riddell, though still they struggled to punch – or kick – their way out of their own half. Time and again they were forced to repel Warrington’s attacks on their line.

But when Mathers spilled Briers’ pass, a grateful Richards snatched the ball up and sprinted 90m to the line, carrying Riley over the line with him to draw the scores level at 16-16. The Australian was mobbed by his team-mates, and though he missed the conversion, it breathed life into the home side and raised the game’s tempo and the fans’ voices.

From the next attack, Joel Tomkins broke free and kicked on for Goulding to chase. The ball squirmed from under Mathers’ grasp, but Liam Farrell was unable to control the ball as he pounced for what he hoped was the match-winning touchdown.

The stage was set for a nerve-shredding ending. A thunderous shot by Louis Anderson on Hansen underlined the visitors’ battling spirit, and they went back ahead with 10 minute to go when Westwood strolled beyond Leuluai.

Briers hit a late dropgoal to seal their win.