Challenge Cup triumph elevates this Wigan Warriors team to greatness

THE words ‘Wigan’ and ‘history’ go hand-in-hand.

A record 23 league championships. A record five world titles. And now a record-extending 21st Challenge Cup win.

But with such a roll call of honour, it takes something truly exceptional to stand out in the history of the club, never mind the history of the sport.

By winning this latest Challenge Cup to hold all four available pieces of silverware at once, this current Warriors vintage has now done that.

They become only the sixth team to have the Grand Final, League Leaders’ Shield, World Club Challenge and Challenge Cup in their trophy cabinet together.

And naturally Wigan are out on their own in that regard too, accounting for four of those six occasions (their sides of 1988, 1992 and 1994 preceding Bradford in 2004 and St Helens in 2007).

After this victory, coach Matt Peet said: “When I talk about our motivation, it’s achieving something particularly special, to put that fourth trophy in the cabinet.”

Like much that Peet and Wigan have put their mind to in the last three years, it’s mission accomplished.

One thing that stands this win apart from their other recent triumphs is that this one could be considered somewhat comfortable.

In 2022, the Challenge Cup was attained with a late match-winning try. Last year, the League Leaders’ Shield was secured only with the final whistle of the final game, and the Grand Final was a one-try nail-biter. In February, a video-referee decision after the hooter settled the World Club Challenge.

But at Wembley – where Wigan have now won 18 times, with this the first since 2013 – they were well in control throughout and cruised to victory.

To some degree, that was down to the underperformance of a Warrington team that showed their lack of big-game experience in the club’s first final since winning this competition five years ago.

But take nothing away from the Warriors who, in contrast, are well used to these occasions and know how to deliver on them.

Their leading stars shone, not least Bevan French, who scooped up the Lance Todd Trophy after setting up their first try and scoring their second to put them well on course for victory. Ditto Harry Smith, whose kicking was once more exceptional, and Jai Field, ever-threatening from the back.

In the pack, the likes of Kaide Ellis and captain Liam Farrell – Wigan’s third and final try-scorer who is now a four-time Challenge Cup winner – were hugely influential.

And the future is clearly bright too, with 20-year-old Zach Eckersley not looking at all out of place after replacing the suspended Adam Keighran in only his fifth game for the club (and first in the Challenge Cup), scoring their opening try.

“I felt we were in control,” said Peet, whose side conceded a Matt Dufty try with 16 minutes remaining but never really looked like letting their lead slip.

“To be honest, (watching them) through the week, I thought it would take a good team to beat this group.

“(Warrington) have good players as well but we were connected in a way that is hard to break.”

Tough-as-teak defence is a common trait of this Wigan side, particularly in the big games. Peet identified another too – an ability to take everything in their stride.

That was his takeaway from the chaotic opening four minutes which brought not one but two cards, a yellow for each team.

First veteran Mike Cooper, recalled for only a third start of the year, was penalised for clipping Josh Thewlis high, despite the mitigation of the Warrington winger slipping and falling quickly in height.

Then Dufty took Wigan’s Liam Marshall high and referee Chris Kendall, after a fracas as the game threatened to spiral out of control, levelled the numbers.

Peet was visibly disgusted on TV by the first decision, but later said: “There are ebbs and flows in a game and events, certainly at the start, but a real strength of this group is the ability to deal with whatever comes.

“There are times in a game when things go against them but they rise to it. They almost seem to enjoy it.”

Wigan trailed at the end of the twelve-a-side period, with Thewlis knocking over a penalty when their try-line defence was caught offside. But once back to full complements, it was they who took control.

French was chief instigator of both first-half tries, which were separated by only six minutes. His grubber kick for a memorable Eckersley try was perfectly weighted, and came after the Warriors earned an offside penalty from some strong carries and quick rucks.

Matty Ashton and George Williams knock-ons presented their next chance and up stepped French again – literally this time, showing dazzling footwork to step past Matty Nicholson after charging beyond Toby King running a clever line against the grain from a scrum play.

Smith converted both tries for Wigan to lead 12-2 – and with the Wolves’ error count piling high, they could have been further ahead by half-time.

French certainly felt that way, after being denied in the final minute of the period. He stretched out for the line as Lachlan Fitzgibbon and King brought him to ground – after a typically poor Warrington error with Williams throwing a pass into touch – but the tackle was deemed to have been completed.

So Sam Burgess’ men were just about still in the final at half-time – not that it was a lifeline they grasped. Instead, the second-half performance was little better than the first.

They had one early opening after the restart, but Ashton was powered into touch by Eckersley and French, while their pack was stretched as Jordan Crowther hobbled off, following the half-time withdrawal of Fitzgibbon.

And the game was up before the half-hour mark as Farrell stormed over for their final try. Short passes by Smith and Field released the skipper, running a good line, and he slipped past Dufty and held off Nicholson to effectively clinch victory.

Burgess reflected of his Wolves side: “With a young squad and twelve players who have never played in a final, I’d like to think they’ll be better next time.

“It’s experience for us as a new group. We didn’t get our game on. I wouldn’t say we froze, but probably the occasion got us a bit early.

“We didn’t perform the way we have played all year and the players will be more disappointed than anyone about that.

“I feel their pain, I’m a bit deflated too. Like them, it’s my first final as a coach, so I’ll look at how I can be better.”

Dufty has been one of Warrington’s stars this year and did well to score as the clock ticked down, stepping through the line for a fine individual try.

But a comeback still seemed unlikely and so it proved, not threatening the try-line again as Wigan comfortably held on despite a field-goal attempt being sliced wide by Smith.

Little else went askew for Wigan on a picture-perfect day, which capped a perfect year.

First published in League Express newspaper, Issue 3,434 (June 10, 2024)

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