In the depths of Wigan’s despair 12 months ago it felt almost impossible to believe the words that were coming out of Shaun Wane’s mouth. 2017 was the nadir of the Warriors’ recent history, ending with a sixth-placed finish which left some wondering not only whether Wane could rebuild the fortunes of one of rugby league’s most famous clubs but whether he could actually survive the winter.
But at his beloved club’s lowest ebb Wane – who crafted his playing career as a no-nonsense, tough-talking forward with Wigan – promised there would not be a repeat. “I’ll go away and look at how we can improve and how I can improve” was Wane’s promise in a chilly Wakefield press room that felt a million miles away from the glitz and glamour of the Grand Final.
It seems he was a man of his word all along. On an emotionally charged night in rugby league’s most illustrious town, how fitting it was that Wigan delivered a performance laced with the characteristics that Wane prides his sides on to reach Super League’s holy grail once again. This was not a night for razzle-dazzle; it was about passion, emotion and the willingness to keep fighting – something this side possesses in bucketloads.
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And after negotiating both the emotion and a Castleford side who will look back on this as yet another missed opportunity in a major knockout game, it means Wane and his departing senior players get the opportunity to sign off from Wigan in the perfect manner at Old Trafford in a week’s time.
“We’ll save the celebrations for next week,” a visibly emotional Wane said. “I’m very proud of our efforts. I’m so pleased it’s untrue. It was backs against the wall and, when the negative things were being said, they dusted themselves down. Finishing at Old Trafford is a dream.”
To deny any side in a play-off semi-final a single point is an achievement but to do it against this Castleford side, who have become renowned for attacking flair, underlines the mentality within the Wigan camp. They were the epitome of a big-game side delivering a big-game performance here – but for the Tigers it was the exact opposite.
For Castleford this had shades of last year’s Grand Final, when errors cost them dearly under the bright lights of Old Trafford against Leeds. They have established themselves as a leading side in Super League in recent years but on numerous occasions here – including when the game was in the balance with Wigan leading only 7-0 – they spurned chance after chance.
“I thought we panicked in the second half,” their coach, Daryl Powell, said. “We’ve worked so hard through the season and it’s been a tough year but we needed the best game of the season tonight and we didn’t get that from too many of the boys. We tried hard, but maybe a little bit too hard at times.”
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As well as Wane, this was the final home appearance as a Wigan player for Sam Tomkins, who heads to Catalans in 2019 – and fittingly he had a decisive say in proceedings. The full-back was crucial in attack but equally so in defence as the hosts denied Castleford time and time again throughout a first half in which they led after eight minutes courtesy of Tommy Leuluai’s try.
Leuluai, like Tomkins, epitomises the character of this Wigan side and on his 250th appearance for the club he was at the heart of a cherry and white wall which would not be beaten all night long. Though it was not certain at the time, when Tomkins added a drop goal right on the half-time hooter to make it 7-0, the two-score lead was to prove crucial.
There were chances again for Castleford after half-time but the tension in their play was all too evident on a night when the prowess of their talented teenage half-back Jake Trueman, who was ruled out with a hand injury, was sorely missed. And crucially, any time Castleford did get close to breaching Wigan, they were met by resilient last-ditch defending.
When Tomkins scythed through on the hour mark before adding another penalty to make it 13-0, it was clear it would be the Warriors, not the Tigers, heading to Old Trafford. Tomkins even had time for a second drop goal in the final seconds though the cake needed no icing. There will be one hell of a party if all goes to plan for Wane and Wigan next weekend.
Wigan Tomkins; Manfredi, Gildart, Sarginson, Davies; Williams, Leuluai; Navarrete, Powell, Flower, Bateman, Greenwood, O’Loughlin. Interchange Farrell, Escare, Clubb, Sutton. Tries Leuluai, Tomkins. Goals Tomkins 2. Drop-goals Tomkins 2. Castleford Matautia; Clare, Wardle, Shenton, Eden; Roberts, Gale; Watts, McShane, Millington, Holmes, McMeeken, Massey. Interchange Milner, Sene-Lefao, Webster, Clark. Referee Ben Thaler
- Rugby league
- Super League
- Super League XXIII (2018)
- Wigan Warriors
- match reports
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