A combination of fierce emotion and cool heads saw Warrington into their first Challenge Cup final for 18 years. Tony Smith will lead the Wolves out at Wembley at the end of this month, thanks to a performance that was too potent for a disappointing Wigan until well into the second half.
A stirring fightback after the break threatened to turn this into a Cup classic, but the Wigan coach, Brian Noble, had it right in his assessment of this second semi-final failure in three seasons. "Michael Monaghan ripped us to pieces around the rucks," he said. "We showed what we were made of second half, but we gave ourselves too high a hill to climb."
The game was indeed a triumph for Monaghan, who, like the hat-trick hero Matt King, has not always been highly regarded by Warrington's fans.
The turning point for the Australian came when Smith switched him to hooker after his arrival as coach this season. On Saturday he was listed at scrum-half but spent most of the match causing havoc from dummy half.
Lee Briers was the official man of the match, but even he thought it should have gone to Monaghan, whose domination of the rucks enabled his half-back partner to stay wide and pick his moments.
Briers, dropped by Smith this season and then supposedly on his way to Barrow, did have an influential game, especially when Wigan got within six points with 10 minutes left. He played the game on a tide of emotion, dedicating it to his brother, who died eight years ago and would have celebrated his birthday on Saturday. When it mattered, though, he stayed calm, setting up the drop goal that put his side back in control.
Nor should the contribution of Adrian Morley, on his way back to Wembley after a 10-year gap, be overlooked. The Wolves might not have had any points to show for their blistering start, but they set out their stall with the controlled ferocity of their tackling. Morley was at the forefront of that and is becoming the sort of leader-by-example who can lift a side on a big occasion.
For all that, it was Wigan who went into an early eight-point lead and failed to build on it. Conceding four tries in 12 minutes is the mark of a defence that has lost its bite, while Sam Tomkins, who has had such a marvellous first full season, lost his way at stand-off. When he rediscovered it, a typically instinctive try sparked Wigan's resurgence. Suddenly players like Andy Coley and Paul Prescott, among their successes over the last few weeks, looked capable of powering them to one of the great Cup comebacks.
They came up short and Noble is enough of a realist to know that the odds against him being Wigan coach next season lengthened appreciably as soon as the final hooter sounded.
Warrington: Mathers; Hicks, Bridge, King, Riley; Briers, Monaghan; Morley, Clarke, Carvell, Westwood, L Anderson, Harrison. Substitutes used: V Anderson, Johnson, Cooper, Rauhihi.
Wigan: Phelps; Roberts, Gleeson, Carmont, Richards; S Tomkins, Leuluai; Coley, Riddell, Prescott, Bailey, Hansen, O'Loughlin. Substitutes used: Fielden, Paleaasina, J Tomkins, Flanagan.
Referee: S Ganson (St Helens)Reuse content