Paul turns scraps to art

A less than convincing Wigan still managed to overcome St Helens 25-16 in Saturday's Regal Trophy final. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online
Too many of Wigan's finals over the last decade or so have been unsatisfyingly one-sided, with opposing sides crushed under the wheels of the juggernaut.

The fierce, enthralling contest that decided the destination of the Regal Trophy on Saturday was the perfect antidote to all that, hinging on a couple of mistakes and a couple of flashes of dazzling skill.

The mistakes came from St Helens, notably the one from Scott Gibbs that saw the ball presented on a plate for Kris Radlinski try to put Wigan ahead early in the second half.

The explosions of pure, instinctive ability came from Henry Paul, who twice bypassed a defence that seemed to have him coned in on all sides like a man navigating by a different road map.

"It wasn't a vintage Wigan win," he said. "Sometimes you just have to make the most of the scraps you get."

Paul, like another Wigan stand-off, Brett Kenny, 10 years before him, has elevated making the most of scraps to an art-form.

"I was making a tape of high-lights the night before the match and my wife said to me 'How can they keep him out of the New Zealand team?'," Graeme West, his coach, said.

"He goes into a situation where you know for sure that he's going to get caught and the next thing you know he's out the other side."

The other key strand in Wigan's eighth Regal Trophy triumph was the quality of their defence at a time when they were failing to fire as an attacking force.

They have rarely looked more disjointed than they did during the first half, when players bunching around ball prevented them getting either depth or width into their fragmented pattern of play.

Yet, even though that troubled phase, Wigan gave only the bare minimum away to opponents who were intent on making up for all their previous indignities suffered at their hands.

Both their tries had to be worked for ferociously, battering and probing until gaps appeared, and a two-point lead at the break left matters wide open.

That was when Gibbs' first moment of madness cut the ground from under Saints' feet. Much of the credit goes to Jason Robinson for following up his own kick and driving the Welshman over his own try-line, but Gibbs' blunder was in trying to plant the ball back on the right side of that line. The result was the easiest try Radlinski will ever score.

Paul's first try did not deflate Saints, who came back to within three points through Keiron Cunningham. But Gary Connolly, the former Saint, stopped Vila Matautia in his tracks just short of the line and Gibbs, who had done everything possible to try to make up for his earlier mistake, had his second brain-storm.

His raised elbow flattened Simon Haughton and the referee, Russell Smith, had no doubts about sending him off, which only meant that he missed seeing Paul's second tour de force in injury time.

When the dust settles, Saints will have profoundly mixed emotions over this game. As their coach, Eric Hughes, pointed out, they had played, for the most part, magnificently. Yet admirable as they were - especially Cunningham and Steve Prescott - and off-key as Wigan were for much of the game, it was still Saints who made the crucial errors and Wigan who took advantage.

Hughes, whose contract expires in May, hinted at an element of uncertainty in his future by referring to the foundation upon which he "or another coach" can work.

He may wonder, in time, whether his decision to play all three of his recently injured players was entirely successful. Paul Newlove got through the 80 minutes, scored a try and contributed to another, but, like Chris Joynt and, until he went off after 47 minutes, Anthony Sullivan, he was generally quiet.

When Andy Northey came on, however, he added thrust to the Saints backline that could have been useful from the start.

But these are details. The broad picture is that, even playing out of their skins, Wigan's rivals always have a weakness or two to be exploited.

Wigan: Connolly; Robinson, Tuigamala, Radlinski, Offiah; Paul, Edwards; Cowie, Hall, O'Connor, Quinnell (Dermott, 69), Cassidy, Haughton.

St Helens: Prescott; Hayes, Gibbs, Newlove, Sullivan (Northey, 47); Hammond, Goulding; Perelini, Cunningham, Pickacance (Matautia, 25), Joynt, Booth, Busby (Pickavance, 58).

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).