WARRIORS ace Sam Tomkins produced a dazzling performance in the first Carnegie Challenge Cup semi-final to send Wigan back to Wembley after a 13-year absence.
Tomkins was heroic in defence as the Warriors held a rampant St Helens at bay in an attritional first half before scoring the match-winning try at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium, the scene of their even more impressive quarter-final triumph over the Wolves a fortnight ago.
Trailing 18-2 after an hour, Saints struck back with two tries in five minutes from winger Jamie Foster, who scored all their points, but it was not enough to save them from a third consecutive semi-final defeat, this after lifting the trophy three years in a row.
Wigan fully deserved to reach their first final for seven years and book their first trip to Wembley since their infamous defeat by Sheffield Eagles in 1998 while the reigning Super League champions remain a good bet to become the first team to complete the double since St Helens in 2006.
The Warriors, who won at Wembley eight years in a row from 1988-95, will be hot favourites to give coach Michael Maguire a fitting send-off in his final season in charge when they meet the winners of tomorrow’s second semi-final between Leeds and Castleford on August 27.
For much of the first half, Saints looked the more likely finalists in Royce Simmons’ first season but, for fourth time this year, they came up short against their arch rivals.
The near-capacity crowd of 12,713 had to wait 33 minutes for the first try after a tight and tense opening in which Wigan demonstrated just why they have the best defence in Super League.
Saints managed to put their opponents’ defence under incessant pressure but the Warriors held firm, with Sam Tomkins yet again belying his diminutive stature to diffuse two spiralling kicks from Leon Pryce.
The England full-back rarely got the chance to show his dazzling attacking skills in the first half but 19-year-old winger Josh Charnley demonstrated his exceptional promise with a 40-metre break out of defence that led to the only try of the first half.
Evergreen full-back Paul Wellens pulled off a classic last-ditch tackle to haul down Charnley 20 metres from the line but Saint had no time to regroup as Wigan shifted the ball to the left where Ryan Hoffman sent centre George Carmont over.
Pat Richards, who had earlier missed a straight-forward penalty, made amends with the angled conversion to make it 6-2 after Foster had opened the scoring with a 26th-minute penalty.
It was no coincidence that the Saints line was breached while James Graham was off the field for the England prop had been a tower of strength in the opening quarter, helping his side lay a solid platform.
With the experienced Pryce dictating play alongside the irrepressible James Roby, Saints held siege in the Wigan half but they could not crack a superbly-marshalled defence.
The busy Tomkins came to his side’s rescue early in the second half with an important tackle on Jonny Lomax after the St Helens half-back was put through a gap by Roby and then came into his own in the match.
He managed to jink his way to the line on 46 minutes only for video referee Steve Ganson to disallow the try for an obstruction by a dummy runner but the game was shifting irretrievably towards the champions and they put the result beyond doubt with two tries in five minutes just short of the hour mark.
First Tomkins and Paul Deacon combined to move the ball wide and create an overlap for Joel Tomkins to get Charnley over and then the wispy full-back demonstrated his deceptive strength to force his way over from short range for his side’s third try.
Richards added both conversions to make it 18-2 and it looked immaterial when Carmont dropped Joel Tomkins’ pass with the line at his mercy.
The Wigan fans were faced with an anxious few minutes when veteran centre Francis Meli carved out a try for Foster on 64 minutes and then repeated the feat five minutes later.
Brett Finch attempted to ease those worries with a rush drop-goal attempt that went well wide and Richards was also off target with a last-minute penalty but time eventually beat St Helens.