St Helens, Super League champions and lords of all they have surveyed over the last year, finally ran out of fuel at Wigan last night, leaving their oldest rivals to contest this season's title with Bradford at Old Trafford next Saturday.
"The scoreboard says that physically it was one game too many for us,'' said Saints' coach Ian Millward, who saw his worst suspicions confirmed when his troops were ultimately overpowered.
It took a special Wigan performance to put an end to Saints' remarkable sequence of 11 victories in knock-out rugby. It was in midfield that they did the damage, with Adrian Lam and Matthew Johns just too incisive.
In his two seasons in charge at St Helens, Ian Millward has established a reputation not just as a gambler, but as one who usually beats the odds. He took one risk but rejected another last night, starting with David Fairleigh despite his crocked shoulder, but resisting the temptation to recall Sean Long after four months out for a knee reconstruction.
Wigan, with the luxury of a full- strength team, dominated the first half from the start. Initially, the chances got away from them, with their failure to capitalise on early fumbles from Vila Matautia and Kieron Cunningham. Even an apparent first try was chalked off, David Furner's side-stepping run and touchdown being negated by Steve Renouf's faulty play-the-ball earlier in the attack.
It was a matter of time before Wigan got one that did count and it came when their captain, Andy Farrell, went through John Stankevitch's tackle and turned the ball inside for Lam to score. The home side had inviting chances on both wings before Saints, completely against the run of play, equalised through Kevin Iro driving over from dummy half.
That was a warning that Saints can never be taken for granted, but Wigan were making so many breaks in midfield, that it was to prove a blip in their first-half progress. It was Johns' defence-splitting run that set up Kris Radlinski for their second try, the full-back scrambling to his feet after being ankle-tapped to go the last few yards.
Six minutes before half-time, Terry Newton took advantage of Fairleigh's dodgy shoulder by going past him for the second time in quick succession and scoring with some ease. Three conversions and a penalty from Farrell completed a satisfactory 40 minutes for Wigan. Wigan effectively sealed their win in the early minutes in the second half, Newton twice getting away from dummy half to set up a try for Lam and the outstanding Johns.
Paul Sculthorpe struck a defiant note with Saints' second try, but Johns' quick hands then gave Brian Carney just enough room on the touchline for his first, quickly followed by another from a little kick by Farrell, who broke the club record for points in a season in the process of landing his eight goals.
''I though they started the game strongly and it could have gone either way until we went two points in front,'' said Farrell, quietly relishing an overdue victory over Saints in a big game. "We took notice of Stuart Raper and concentrated on playing the game instead of playing the occasion. We played some smart rugby tonight.''
For Saints, it was unfamiliar territory, never having lost a game that mattered under Millward's coaching.
"I am so proud of what they have achieved this season,'' their coach said. "They deserved to walk out of here tonight with their heads held high.''
Wigan: Radlinski; Dallas, Renouf, Connolly, Carney; Johns, Lam; O'Connor, Newton, Howard, Cassidy, Furner, Farrell. Subs used: Cowie, Johnson, Chester, Betts.
St Helens: Wellens; Hall, Iro, Hoppe, Stewart; Sculthorpe, Martyn; Fairleigh, Cunningham, Matautia, Shiels, Stankevitch, Joynt. Subs used: Edmondson, Jonkers, Higham, Cruckshank.
Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).Reuse content