Wigan’s coach, Matt Peet, insisted this week there are at least four sides who will have a strong say in the make-up of this year’s Grand Final. In terms of the league table he is undeniably right but if it is Wigan versus St Helens at Old Trafford come October, we are going to be in for a treat.
St Helens recently passed 1,000 consecutive days as Super League champions so perhaps it was fitting they delivered a victory filled with the characteristic that has set them apart from the chasing pack for the past three years: their ability to never give in.
It has been two years since they lost back-to-back league games but with seconds remaining here in Newcastle, it seemed as though that run was about to end.
Wigan had performed admirably to not only lead by 10 points at one stage, but again by six points with a numerical disadvantage after Brad Singleton was sent off with 15 minutes remaining. In recent years, a man advantage for St Helens was almost certainly a recipe for disaster for their opponents, but this Wigan side are cut from a different cloth.
However, just as it seemed as though they would hold on, St Helens did what they have done so many times in the past and ripped up the script at the very last moment. Wigan were about to draw level at the top of the table but in the blink of an eye, Jonny Lomax’s dramatic last-ditch try following a Joe Batchelor break opened up a four-point cushion at the summit for Saints.
“That was two really good teams who played well in different stages,” their coach, Kristian Woolf, said. “We were a bit impatient but I knew we’d get an opportunity. We had to chase some points and that last try was outstanding.”
There is no doubting this Wigan side are the biggest threat St Helens have faced in regards to their dominance of Super League.
That Saints were knocked out of the Challenge Cup by Wigan at the semi-final stage before the Warriors went on to lift the trophy in May underlined that, and this courageous effort emphasised it further.
“We’ll learn a lot from the game,” Peet said. “Our effort and commitment levels were there but to play for this club you’ve got to be a bit smarter.”
Wigan deservedly led at half-time, after Jai Field and Bevan French combined to send the latter across the line, cancelling out Jon Bennison’s early penalty for St Helens. When John Bateman extended Wigan’s lead after half-time, it opened up a 10-point cushion for the Warriors and in games like these, advantages of that size can be significant.
But St Helens battled impressively to level the contest. Batchelor instinctively kicked ahead of Field to ground the ball before Jack Welsby seized on a loose ball in midfield and outpaced French to the line.
Bennison missed the goal but when Singleton was sent off – a decision Peet said he understood – the winger converted a routine penalty to make it 12-12. Suddenly, it felt like the momentum was with the champions.
However, Wigan produced a moment of sheer magic as Field broke free from deep, before cleverly kicking wide for French, who had the wherewithal to finish and put the Warriors back ahead. Harry Smith converted and as Wigan held the Saints at bay in a frantic final few minutes, it was easy to afford yourself a moment’s thought to wonder if the balance of power in Super League was starting to shift.
But you can never write off Saints. Batchelor broke free, Lomax supported and once again, we were reminded that the competition’s dominant force is in no mood to relinquish its grip any time soon.