Wigan Warriors are back at Wembley for next month’s Challenge Cup final after a hard-fought but ultimately well-deserved victory over plucky Salford at Warrington.
After Tom Davies saw two tries disallowed inside the first five minutes, Oliver Gildart and Willie Isa did manage to cross to open up a 12-0 lead that didn’t flatter the Warriors.
Credit Salford for the way they responded, and tries from Greg Johnson and Tyrone McCarthy locked the scores, before Michael Dobson’s third goal saw the Red Devils lead 14-12 at the break.
After Joe Burgess saw a length-of-the-field try chalked off by the video referee, George Williams’ third goal made it 14-14 on the hour mark.
Wigan sent Micky McIlorum back on to the field after a rest, and the wily hooker touched down within two minutes of his return to nose his side ahead.
Williams’ conversion and a drop-goal from Sam Tomkins made it 21-14 with time running out.
And Gildart added the icing to the cake with his second try in the very last minute, which the Warriors stand-off again converted.
Wigan will play Hull in the Wembley showpiece on Saturday, August 26 – a repeat of the 2013 final, which the Warriors won 16-0, and also arguably the greatest ever final of 1985, which the cherry-and-whites won 28-24.
After the most one-sided opening quarter imaginable, Wigan fans could have been forgiven for making an early start on their Wembley plans.
Davies – preferred in the starting XIII to Liam Marshall, opposite Salford debutante Manu Vatuvei – was almost over inside two minutes.
The youngster took a fabulous backhanded offload from Anthony Gelling, only for his right boot to flick the touchline just before he placed the ball over the line.
Three minutes later, Davies thought he was in again, once more off Gelling, only for referee James Child to call the action back for a forward pass.
But it only delayed the inevitable, and it was third time lucky for Wigan when Williams and Thomas Leuluai created the opening for Gildart to stride through the overworked defence.
And the scoreline was given a far more accurate look when Wigan quickly scored again, this time back-rower Isa taking advantage of great work from Tomkins and the impressive John Bateman to grab his first try of the season.
At the midway point in the first half, Salford would have been delighted to only be 12 points down, having failed to get any kind of foothold in the game.
However, they managed to stem the bleeding, and got on the scoresheet on 23 minutes when Todd Carney and Niall Evalds got Johnson over in the right-hand corner.
Former Wigan half-back Dobson nailed a beauty of a conversion from out wide, and his trusty boot laid on Salford’s second try shortly after, with McCarthy winning the race to the ball – a score that was awarded by the video referee.
Dobson’s second conversion and a penalty from bang in front gave Salford the lead for the first time, which they held until the interval.
Wigan’s attempts to hit back were thwarted by a numerical disadvantage caused by Tomkins being sent to the sin-bin – somewhat harshly – for his role in the penalty that afforded the Red Devils the lead.
Thankfully Tomkins made amends at the start of the second period when his break led to Burgess embarking on a mesmerising run that ended with him touching down in the left-hand corner.
Referee Child went to the screen and, to the incredulity of the Wigan fans, the score was disallowed – apparently for a knock-on in the grounding.
Wigan recovered their composure and levelled the scores through the boot of Williams, who then missed a good chance to edge his side in front when he sent another penalty attempt sailing wide of the sticks.
However, Salford’s heroic efforts in getting back into the game was having a visible effect as time ticked on, and Wigan were able to hammer home their superiority in the final quarter.
McIlorum was in the right place at the right time to take delivery of a kick from Burgess to touch down by the side of the posts, with Williams’ goal making it 20-14.
Tomkins sent over a smart one-pointer to make Salford have to score twice, but a nervy finale was ensured when Todd Carney nailed a second 40-20 to hand his side possession in Wigan territory.
As the Red Devils tried to take a quick tap, Gelling made little attempt to get out of the way of the ball in backplay and ended the game in the sin-bin.
But a knock-on on tackle one relieved all the pressure.
And the win was secured in the dying seconds when Gildart crossed for his second try, with Williams again on the mark with the conversion.