Clinical Dragons rein in Wigan to claim global bragging rights

Wigan 15 St George Illawarra 21
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Wigan narrowly failed to win the World Club Challenge for a fourth time, outgunned by the finishing power of the Australian champions and their Test winger, Brett Morris.

It was an enthralling match that could have gone either way, but Morris's strength near the line for his two tries summed up St George's determination, as did their defence when Wigan put them under pressure.

"Full credit to St George Illawarra," said Wigan's Australian coach, Michael Maguire. "They took their chances when they got them. That's why they're the team that they are."

For the fifth World Club Challenge in their history, Wigan were able to take what turned out to be an unsuccessful gamble on Martin Gleeson after a test on his hamstring, but were without Stuart Fielden – the veteran of three of these occasions in his Bradford days – with a flare-up of his knee trouble.

The main absentee for the Dragons was their illustrious coach, Wayne Bennett, back in Australia because of his mother-in-law's serious illness. They could not have played with any greater resolve if he had been sitting in the stand at the DW Stadium and keeping an eye on them.

In case the significance of the event was lost on Wigan, a parade of the team that won the trophy in 1987 – legendary names such as Ellery Hanley and Andy Gregory – hammered the point home.

That epic famously failed to produce a single try; almost 24 years later, it took less than two minutes.

Michael Weyman lost the ball in the tackle as he tried to run it out of his own territory. Wigan pounced and, at the end of that set of tackles, Paul Deacon launched a cross-field kick that saw George Carmont fly higher than anyone to catch and plant the ball down.

Deacon added the goal and then a 40-metre penalty after Nathan Fien went high on Andy Coley. The Dragons, without a warm-up game in their build-up, were showing every sign of being caught cold.

They were helped to settle, however, by a handling error by Gleeson, who gave up possession deep in the Wigan half. St George's ball-handling was clinical for Morris to go over in the corner for the first of his first-half double.

Some poor kicking was hampering Wigan's cause and they also gave away a cheap penalty for offside to set up Matt Cooper for the Dragons' second, with Jamie Soward this time converting to edge them ahead.

Deacon missed a kickable penalty before a spectacular second try from Carmont. Harrison Hansen put his pass on the floor, but the Samoan centre scooped it off his bootlaces to go 70 metres for probably the longest-range effort of his Wigan career.

Darius Boyd was giving Wigan no end of trouble with his incursions into the line and it was he who helped set up Morris for the equalising try, although it still took plenty of scoring through some heavy defence.

All square at half-time would have been a fair reflection of the action, but Sam Tomkins gave Wigan the slenderest of psychological advantages with a drop-goal on the stroke of the interval.

The loss of the struggling Gleeson forced Wigan into a reshuffle as the second half produced a series of pivotal – or potentially pivotal – moments.

The big one came when Darrell Goulding was agonisingly close to picking off an interception from Boyd that would have given him a fighting chance of going to the other end and scoring.

Instead, the ball came off his fingertips, St George took possession from the scrum and their 19-year-old reserve hooker, Cameron King, darted in from dummy half, at the expense of a torn pectoral muscle.

Joel Tomkins, in Gleeson's centre role, made try-saving tackles on Cooper and Morris as the Dragons threatened to seal it. They settled instead for a Soward drop-goal that still had the effect of putting them a converted try ahead.

Wigan's best chance of overturning that came when Sam Tomkins was obstructed chasing his own kick and the Warriors battered the St George try-line for two sets of tackles.

It all came to nothing as Saints held firm and Amos Roberts passed into touch, as it did when Carmont made one last break, but Liam Farrell could not take his inside pass.

"I'm extremely proud of my players," said Maguire. "They worked extremely hard right to the death. It shows that there's not much between the two competitions at the top level."

St George's stand-in coach, Steve Price, spoke on the phone from the dressing rooms to Bennett, who declared himself well pleased with their defensive effort. When you tackle like they did and have finishers like Morris in the side, the world is your stage.

Wigan: S Tomkins; Goulding, Gleeson, Carmont, Roberts; Deacon, Leuluai; Prescott, McIlorum, Coley, Hansen, Hoffman, O'Loughlin. Substitutes used J Tomkins, Farrell, Tuson, Mossop.

St George Illawarra: Boyd; Morris, Cooper, Gasnier, Nightingale; Soward, Hornby; Hunt, Fien, Weyman, Scott, Creagh, Prior. Substitutes used Greenfield, Merrin, Green, King.

Referee T Alibert (France)

Attendance 24,268.