Lee Briers laid to rest the ghosts of semi-finals past, inspiring the Warrington Wolves to an emphatic victory over the Wigan Warriors who despite a late rally looked under-cooked for most of the game, gone was the harrying defence that had thwarted St Helens the week before.
Briers was instrumental in attack, his kicking game continually posing problems out wide. Whilst half back partner Michael Monaghan and hat trick hero, Matt King, also answered critics with their willingness to take the line on a continual thorn in the Warriors’ side.
Only an injury to primrose and blue winger, Chris Riley, who was stretchered off in a neck brace marred the day for Warrington, with coach, Tony Smith revealing:
“Chris is at the hospital having precautionary tests. You can’t be too careful where neck injuries are concerned.”
Smith was understandably elated with the result but at pains to point out:
“I was confident when I took over the club that we could be competitive. We’ve won nothing yet though.”
An emotional Briers revealed:
“It’s eight years to the day since my brother died, so I was a bit emotional before and after the game. It’s not really sunk in yet though. But it was a win that means a lot, not just for me but for the club, people who work there who you mostly wouldn’t know and for the fans who’ve been through so much pain.”
Thomas Leuluai, invisible for much of Wigan’s insipid opening stanza, tried in vain to rally the Warriors to an unlikely victory turning around a 28-8 half time deficit to rattle the Wolves late into the second half.
Leuluai’s prompting composed the Warriors offence when the Wolves’ concentration began to lapse, with tries from Sam Tomkins and Andy Coley bolstering Wigan’s hopes of an unlikely comeback. When Leuluai crossed for a try on 68 minutes it brought the Warriors within 6 points of the Wolves.
A Briers drop goal and Chris Hicks’ 40 metre angled sprint to the right corner, just outpacing Phelps, settled the wobbling Wolves though with Briers deservedly picking up the man of the match award.
The game turned on a blistering five minute spell either side of the quarter time mark, which saw the Wolves run-in three tries to turn an 8-0 deficit into an 28-8 half time lead. The Wolves surging forward on a wave of fan-powered emotion. Mike Cooper’s 33 minute touchdown and Matt King’s 39th minute romp through the tattered remnants of the Wigan defence left the Warriors facing an Everest of a challenge to recover after the break.
And Sam Tomkins stamp of disgust as his long pass rumbled into touch, with Wigan pressing has first half time ticked-down, typified the disappointment and frustration in the Wigan camp as the Warriors struggled to contain the more enthusiastic and mobile Wolves pack.
The baying Wolves’ Barmy Army barked their support for their teams as the players lined-up in the tunnel, signalling Warrington’s dominance of pre-match proceedings, which was carried over into the opening minutes of the game.
Wigan withstood a frenzied start from the Wolves to post first points, Phil Bailey, showing great composure to step inside weak tackling and cross by the right upright from 10-meters out. This after Richards was denied a try at the left corner by Chris Hicks’ tackle, with video referee Phil Bentham, awarding a penalty to Wigan for an obstruction on George Carmont in the build-up.
Richards edged the Warriors further ahead moments later with an easy penalty conversion to make it 8-0. All of which left Warrington fans rueing Bentham’s 2nd-minute decision to disallow a Ben Westwood try for obstruction.
The Wolves were far from finished though. They launched an all out assault on the Wigan line, signalled by a Carvell charge that saw him tackled on the line. Matt King soon had video referee, Bentham, thumbing the remote again though forcing his way over on the left despite a posse of Warrior tacklers. This time Bentham, he said ‘Yes’. And the Wolves fans roared. Bridge converted and the gap was just two-points as the first quarter passed
And Louis Anderson pounced on a wickedly bouncing Briers bomb to put the Wolves ahead on 21 minutes. Bridge tagging on the conversion.
Briers capped a solid opening quarter by ducking over by the posts from Monaghan’s simple off load. Bridge’s conversion opened a 10-point Wolves lead.
Mike Cooper extended the lead when he charged through midfield to score under the posts. The half ended on a high when Michael Monaghan surged through the Wigan line on half way and sent King romping down the left flank to score. Bridge’s conversion was wide but the Wolves were well ahead.
Wigan started the second half on the attack, Richards just forced into touch in the act of scoring and Carmont dispossessed by a heft Briers tackle metres out, yet they were unable to convert their chances, coming up with the error again as composure slipped away.
A Briers break down the right flank was screaming for support from a winger, with Hicks trapped on an inside route. But a penalty for interference piggy backed the Wolves to the Wigan line, where Monaghan squirmed over only to be held on his back. From the restart King pounced for his hat trick touchdown, plucking Briers kick from the air to make it 32-8.
When Sam Tomkins popped-up on the 55th minute to grab a tryo it seemed little more than a consolation score, Richards’ conversion making it 32-14.
But the long layoff whilst Riley was treated and packed on a stretcher seemed to disrupt the Wolves concentration. Riley picked-up a neck injury recovering and returning a hopeful kick to the right corner, falling awkwardly in the tackle.
With Leuluai finally getting into the game, Wigan began to show some resolve and they certainly set Wolves nerves jangling when Andy Coley barrelled over for a score by the posts, which Richards converted to bring them within two converted tries of a tie and only an hour of the game gone.
Suddenly the bounces were going Wigan’s way as possession began to even out and Warrington remained mired in their own half.
Sure enough Leuluai stamped his name on the game when he barged his way over at left centre, with Richards’ goal making it 26-32. place.
Game on. But the Wolves were up to the challenge. Tagging on a drop goal and then Hicks killer try to claim a Wembley place.
Wigan : 21 Phelps, 2 Roberts, 22 Gleeson, 4 Carmont, 5 Richards, 25 S Tomkins, 7 Leuluai, 19 Prescott, 9 Riddell, 15 Coley, 12 Bailey, 16 Hansen, 13 O’Loughlin
Subs: 8 Fielden, 10 Paleaasina, 14 J Tomkins, 26 Flanagan
T: Bailey (7), S Tomkins (55), Coley (61), Leuluai (68)
G: Richards 5/5
Warrington: 30 Mathers, 23 Hicks, 25 Bridge, 4 King, 19 Riley, 6 Briers, 7 Monaghan, 8 Morley, 9 Clarke, 16 Carvell, 11 L Anderson, 24 Harrison, 12 Westwood
Subs: 13 V Anderson, 2 Johnson, 18 Cooper, 10 Rauhihi
T: King (19, 39, 50), L Anderson (21), Briers (25), Cooper (32), Hick (79)
G: Bridge 5/7
2 Westwood non-try
6 Richards non-try
7 Bailey try, Richards goal 6-0
11 Richards goal 2/2 8-0
19 King try, Bridge goal 8-6
21 L Anderson try, Bridge goal 2/2 8-12
25 Briers try, Bridge goal 3/3 8-18
33 Cooper try, Bridge 4/4 8-24
39 King try, Bridge miss 4/5 8-28
50 King try, Bridge miss 8-32
55 S Tomkins try, Richards goal 3/3 14-32
60 Coley tru, Richards goal 4/4 20-32
68 Leuluai try, Richards goal 5/5 26-32
71 Briers drop goal 26-33
77 Hicks try, Bridge miss 26-39
Ref: Steve Ganson
Att: 12,975 (capacity)