St Helens have spent most of this season in the shadow of their resurgent neighbours but they came out of that gloom to ambush them yesterday in an absorbing Super League play-off. Their full-back stalwart Paul Wellens scored two tries as Saints, plagued by injury all season, got it right when it mattered.
They now have the luxury of next weekend off, while Wigan are embroiled in a sudden-death showdown on Sunday evening. "I came pretty confident that we could do a job on them," said Saints' coach, Royce Simmons. "The fortnight off won't do us any harm, because we could have another four players available."
He was critical of the referee, Phil Bentham's policing of high tackles. "I thought his performance was very, very, very poor," he said.
Saints looked up for the job from the very first. They should have taken an instant lead when Paul Deacon spilled the kick-off, but Tom Makinson was forced into touch on the next tackle.
Despite that glitch, St Helens dominated the next 40 minutes, their midfield triangle of James Roby, Jonny Lomax and Lee Gaskell threatening to overrun Wigan. It was Gaskell's improvised kick that applied the pressure that led to the first try – the same player then got his pass out to Wellens, who found an inviting gap in the defensive line.
Five minutes later, Roby and Scott Moore created a gap for Michael Shenton and the irrepressible Lomax was in support for the second try. Brett Finch was penalised for holding down in the tackle to give Jamie Foster his third goal and there was a danger of Wigan losing touch.
They are too good a side to let that happen meekly, however, and came storming back before half-time. Sam Tomkins got over the try-line, only to lose the ball and Saints had to defend magnificently for the last five minutes of the half. As the hooter sounded, they finally cracked, with Sean O'Loughlin sending Pat Richards over to remind St Helens that the match had not yet been won.
Wigan carried that new-found momentum into the opening minutes of the second half, drawing to within two points of their rivals with O'Loughlin's try and Richards' goal. Saints could so easily have weakened at this point. But instead, Lomax triggered another attack from deep and was then on hand to provide the scoring pass to Wellens.
Josh Charnley had a Wigan try denied him when he was stopped fractionally short and then James Graham, who led Saints with passion and pride, got his pass away just before the defensive line for Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook to claim the crucial touchdown.
Even then, Saints' supporters were guaranteed a nervous last few minutes when Joel Tomkins stretched an arm over the line for the third Wigan try, but there was no doubt that the better side on the day had won.
"There was always an opportunity there for us," said Wigan's Michael Maguire, resigned to having to get to Old Trafford, like last year, via the circuitous route. "We need to make sure we get everything right this week. We learned the hard way last year, when we had to play through, so it's another opportunity for us," he added.
Wigan: S Tomkins; Charnley, J Tomkins, Carmont, Richards; Finch, Deacon; Lima, Leuluai, Coley, Hansen, Hoffman, O'Loughlin. Substitutes used: McIlorum, Farrell, Prescott, Cross.
St Helens: Wellens; Makinson, Shenton, Meli, Foster; Gaskell, Lomax; Graham, Roby, Puletua, Soliola, Wilkin, Clough. Substitutes used: Moore, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Dixon, Armstrong.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington)Reuse content