How Wigan Warriors’ star halfbacks came to the fore in Challenge Cup final

Not for the first time, Wigan’s supremely talented six and seven came to the fore in the Challenge Cup final.

ON A day that was about not just the competing teams but, above all, Rob Burrow, how fitting it was that the main event saw the halfbacks come to the fore for Challenge Cup winners Wigan.

Over the past twelve months, there has been no better partnership in England than Bevan French and Harry Smith, leading the Warriors to all four available trophies.

After linking up for the late-season run that brought Wigan the League Leaders’ Shield and then Grand Final glory against Catalans, the pair were pivotal in a record-breaking fifth World Club Challenge win over Penrith in February.

Victory at Wembley completed the set – but that was far from the only motivation on the minds of Wigan players and staff before taking on Warrington, after Burrow’s death less than a week earlier.

Everyone in rugby league – and a great many others far beyond its usually narrow reach – was inspired by how Burrow lived with motor neurone disease and saddened by the news of his passing.

But it resonated particularly strongly with French, who lost his mother to the same cruel disease at the beginning of 2022.

“A couple of years ago now I lost my mum to the same thing. Rob was such a legend. It connected with me emotionally,” he said after the final.

“I had that in the back of my mind this week, especially as it was the Challenge Cup as well, which was the first trophy I won after my mum died. It was pretty emotional.”

Not that French let it show on the field, where he produced some of his mercurial best to inspire Wigan’s success and, in the process, win the Lance Todd Trophy.

His class was all over the match, constantly probing at the line and searching for a way to open up the opposition.

Not everything came off but French is a highlight-reel player – the best moments usually have his hands (or feet) all over them, and that’s what makes him so valuable.

Wigan’s two first-half tries were both instigated by exceptional pieces of play by the reigning Man of Steel.

For the first, he received Brad O’Neill’s dummy-half pass on the last tackle. There was no numerical advantage on his right-hand side of the pitch, making a kick inevitable. But he waited, drew in three defenders simply by his presence, and then stabbed the most beautifully-weighted grubber in behind for young centre Zach Eckersley.

The second came from a scrum in front of the posts, with the ball passed right through Smith to French. Toby King – a team-mate last season who knows just what the Aussie can do – rushes out of the line to close him down but French is too quick, swerving that challenge and then, best of all, instinctively stepping off his right foot to round Lachlan Fitzgibbon as the defender moves across, clearing a path to the try-line.

While Wigan’s other try by Liam Farrell, midway through the second half, was created down the left by Jai Field and Smith, French still made his presence felt, with the best contribution in defence – shutting out Warrington winger Matty Ashton in the corner, alongside Eckersley, to prevent a fightback.

No player, however talented, is exempt from that hard work, as he explained: “We pride ourselves on our defence. Go back a few years and we were really classy in attack but our defence wasn’t up to scratch. It was something we had to turn around and focus on. 

“We have a squad full of brilliant individuals but defending your own line is what the main focus is now.”

And what of Smith? If French is a player who gets you off your seat with a moment of instant magic, Smith will push the opposition back and grind them down one kick after another over the course of a match.

That was perfectly encapsulated by French’s try. The field position all came from a long Smith kick, just inside his own half, which spun and wobbled high in the air before being fumbled by a bamboozled Ashton.

His kicking is an obvious asset, earning valuable extra metres at the end of most sets, but like French he has an all-round game that makes Wigan so unpredictable in attack. Shortly after half-time, he so nearly put Liam Marshall in for a try after taking on the line himself with excellent footwork and then working a pin-point pass.

And, also like French, his defensive game is solid. Just moments before that Marshall chance, he came committed bravely to nail Warrington fullback Matt Dufty – one of the most dangerous runners in Super League this season – when he looked to make a break off a kick return. Halfbacks are often the weak links to exploit in defence but with Wigan, there are no weak links.

Now England’s number seven as well as Wigan’s, Smith has become the man for big games. Although yet to win a major individual award in a final, by common consensus among voting media he would have won the Lance Todd Trophy in 2022 if the votes had not been cast before his match-winning assist, while he was runner-up for last year’s Harry Sunderland Trophy (by a single vote) and the Lance Todd this time. He was also player of the series for England against Tonga last autumn.

Smith said at Wembley: “I feel like my type of game, being the halfback controlling the team and my kicking game, sort of suits the big-game mentality. It helps me get into the game quite easily, builds my confidence, then I can use the threats that are around me. Their quality makes it a lot easier for me.

“With myself and Bevan, we felt we had control of the game off the back of my kicking game. We were just trying to wear them down, that was the game plan. In most parts of the game we felt in control, but Warrington definitely had their spells. It was a good game to be involved in. At the end, if they could, every player would have just laid on the floor. Everyone emptied the tanks.”

French and Smith are two crucial cogs in Wigan’s tactical plan, and they also share the mentality required to be serial winners. Each trophy is to be celebrated but it is never enough – there is always something else to be won and something else to be achieved.

French admitted the clean sweep of trophies was a major motivator: “Collectively we hold the League Leaders’, Grand Final, World Club Challenge and now the Challenge Cup. That’s pretty special in itself.”

And Smith added: “When you get these feelings of winning, you just want more. Winning that first Challenge Cup (two years ago), my first big trophy, you just want to do it more. 

“That happiness, that feeling you get around your team-mates and family. You can want to keep bringing that joy to each other. That’s my main motivation, and having a little bit of history in the game.”

On the day when a man who will most certainly be forever a part of rugby league history was remembered, how the halfbacks stole the show to edge this Wigan vintage towards sporting immortality will be too.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 498 (July 2024)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone