Wigan Warriors ended a long championship drought to scupper deadly rivals, St. Helens and pick up their first engage Super League Grand Final win since 1998. The wait, and the victim’s identity, made victory all the sweeter for the Wigan fans.
As for St.Helens, the transitional years under Mick Potter will be judged a failure unless the class of 2010 – the Fosters and Wheelers and Dixons and Lomaxes – develops into world beaters. In this, their fifth successive Grand Final, they tasted defeat for a fourth time; meaning Potter is the first coach since the start of the Super League era to leave St.Helens without winning a trophy during his tenure.
In America’s National Football League the Buffalo Bills lost four successive Super Bowls starting in January 1991 (behind star quarterback, Jim Kelly). No one in America cares about their achievement in getting to four successive Super Bowls, they just mercilessly rib them as the game’s greatest losers. That’s a harsh tag to live with, but it’s one that the Saints and their fans may have to come to terms with, having lost the last four engage Super League Grand Finals.
When St.Helens defeated Wigan Warriors in the 2000 Grand Final they did so with a rich blend of experience and youth. Ten years on and the roles are reversed.
Whilst Saints have some promising talent, the Wigan Warriors have the outstanding star of the next decade in their ranks. Whether that will be Sam or Joel Tomkins or Sean O’Loughlin or Liam Farrell or Paul Prescott or very possibly all five remains to be seen.
Although the game was firmly in the Warriors’ grasp at half-time at 16-6, it was still awaiting its signature moment. On 55 minutes it had one Sam Tomkins linking from fullback, jinking through the Saints line into the 20 and riding a high tackle to reach over and score. There was no coming back for the Merseysiders.
With injury ruling out international half backs, Leon Pryce and Kyle Eastmond, Saints coach, Mick Potter, opted to start with Jon Wilkin at stand-off in preference to Jonny Lomax who was switched to the wing, Francis Meli moving inside to centre to accommodate him.
It was a move that emphasised the resilience and flexibility of the Saints line-up as well as the nurturing philosophy of the departing Potter. Known for his skills in developing young talent, Potter, reckoned on protecting Lomax during the heavy early going, before pulling a three way switch (Soliola-Wilkin-Meli) to move the talented teen into his natural stand-off spot.
This game hinged not on empathy though. It hinged on game planning and tactics. Wigan’s were crisp and well executed, Saints’ were either muddled or misunderstood or poorly applied. They never competed on the same plane and that is a tag that Potter will have to live down as he looks to rebuild a tired Bradford franchise in Super League XVI. His game-planning continues to be naive and easily countered.
In a poor tactical opening the Saints foreshadowed their own downfall; failing to put pressure on Wigan with the kicking game and making a crucial, costly, turnover.
Although Francis Meil – infamously insecure under the highball – settled the Saints fans nerves in taking an early Tomkins’ bomb, Tony Puletua’s sloppy pass in midfield quickly had alarm bells ringing. It bounced twice before even entering Jamie Foster’s postcode and was easily pounced upon by Pat Richards.
A play later the Warriors had spun the ball wide right for the opening try by former Saints’ centre, Martin Gleeson. Man of Steel, Richards, pushed the touchline conversion attempt wide.
With the Warriors rampant only tigerish Saints’ defence denied them in an 18 tackle barrage on their own line. Twice kicks to Richards on the left were repelled, whilst Matty Smith pulled-off a tremendous low tackle to deny Carmont.
Yet, although Saints briefly had the Warriors penned in their 20, it lasted all of two tackles and the Warriors responded in stunning style. A 60-metre break initiated by Thomas Leuluai’s pass to Sam Tomkins linking from fullback was finished by Gleeson. Richards tagged on the extra points for a 10-nil lead.
Mistakes continued to dog the Saints and the Warriors punched in a third try on 25 minutes with Goulding diving in at the right corner after a fumbled bomb gifted them possession in front of the post. Richards landed the two-pointer from the touchline.
The injection of James Roby at last gave the Saints some penetration around the play the ball and a burst from Matty Smith to right centre was stopped 5-metres short. It was the nearest to a try the Saints had come in 29 minutes of play and it signalled a turnaround.
Finally able to mount some pressure the Saints cracked the Warriors’ defence; Paul Clough’s clever delayed pass finding Andrew Dixon unguarded on a late run and the second rower crossed by the posts from 10 metres; Foster converted. It was a move straight from the Wigan play book.
Still no one had turned to the second page of the game plan though, and Sam Tomkins continued to enjoy all the time in the world to collect kicks at full back.
Only the sight of Richards limping from the field on 33 minutes gave the Saints’ any cause for cheer as they sought a much needed second score before the break.
But Smith’s chip to left winger Meli was easily intercepted by Goulding and typified Saints’ poor execution in a disappointing opening stanza.
The Warriors looked to have killed off the game in the opening drive of the second half. Leuluai’s arcing run to the line ending with a stagger and a stumble and a reach over the line at right centre. But the video referee spotted a fumble as he crossed for the score. They did pick-up a penalty but Mark Riddell pushed the ball wide right to give the Saints a reprieve.
Saints briefly threatened a possibility of a comeback. With Wellens making a 50 metres break, which came to nought when he took the wrong option and went left to Lomax only for the pass to be intercepted.
Then a rare Warrior error gifted them a chance inside the 20, only for poor handling to again waste the chance to move within a score.
It was the last chance.
Sam Tomkins showed the determination and character Saints lacked to ride a high tackle and reach out for the killer try at right centre. That and an accomplished display at fullback was enough to earn him a shot at the Harry Sunderland award, but he was pipped by three votes by the industrious Leuluai.
Nothing Saints tried, and they tried little enough, came off. Whilst Wigan were denied another try when Farrell crossed.
Meli finally did cross for Saints second score. Diving in at the left corner with five minutes remaining but the Warriors saw out time easily enough to deservedly claim the mantle of champions.
1 Wellens; 30 Foster, 3 Gidley, 5 Meli, 24 Lomax, 12 Wilkin, 34 Smith; 10 Graham, 9 Cunningham (capt), 15 Hargreaves, 4 Soliola, 13 Flannery, 11 Puletua. Subs: 14 Roby, 17 Clough, 22 Dixon, 25 Emmitt.
T: Dixon (30), Meli (74)
G: Foster 1/2
6 S Tomkins; 24 Goulding, 3 Gleeson, 4 Carmont, 5 Richards; 19 Deacon, 7 Leuluai; 8 Fielden, 15 McIlorum, 10 Coley, 11 Hansen, 12 J Tomkins, 13 O’Loughlin (capt). Subs: 14 Prescott, 9 Riddell, 17 Paleaaesina, 25 Farrell.
T: Gleeson (5,30), Goudling (25) . Tomkins (55)
G: Richards, Riddell
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Dewsbury).
HT: Saints 6 Wigan 16
FT: Saints 10 Wigan 22
5 0-4 Gleeson try
20 0-10 Gleeson, Richards
25 0-16 Goulding, Richards
30 6-16 Dixon, Foster
55 6-20 S. Tomkins (Riddell)
58 Riddell 0/1
60 6-22 Riddell 1/2
70 S. Tomkins 0/1
73 10-22 Francis Meli try
Leavers: Gidley, Cunningham, Hargreaves, Emmitt,, Smith and Potter.