Rugby League: Robinson's gem gives Wigan winning feeling

Wigan Warriors 10 Leeds Rhinos 4
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The Independent Online
THERE HAVE been more spectacular matches to finish the domestic season, but few which have better summed up the virtues that got the two teams to that point.

Wigan and Leeds conferred instant credibility on the inaugural Super League Grand Final, and the play-off format that led to it, by producing a sometimes grim, but always compelling contest at Old Trafford on Saturday night.

They showed all the courage and vigour that had made them the best two teams in the country all year. But, in the final analysis, it was the instinctive opportunism of Jason Robinson and the extra composure that runs through the Wigan side that made the difference.

It had been a relatively modest season for a player of Robinson's class. Although he would still be most opponents' choice as the hardest winger to play against, his coach, John Monie, has wrestled with the problem of getting enough ball to him.

His try, 36 minutes into a first half that Leeds had largely dominated, was only his ninth of the season. It was also his most important.

When Robinson took off from acting half-back, neither Daryl Powell, nor Darren Fleary, nor Jamie Mathiou could hold him. Such is the speed of his footwork, there is always a suspicion among potential tacklers that he is someone else's responsibility.

Suddenly, he had a sight of the try-line and, although there still was much drama to come, the Super League title was on its way to Wigan.

Leeds had damaged their cause already by failing to take sufficient advantage of their territorial domination. A single try, from Richie Blackmore, was poor reward for the way they took the early stages of the game by the scruff of the neck.

In the second half, they handicapped themselves further by dropping far too many balls. It was never easy handling the ball cleanly on an evening of foul weather and crunching defence, but Leeds were disappointed by the extent of their fallibility; nobody more so than Adrian Morley, a potential match-winner who made some serious blunders.

"We're bitterly disappointed," said their captain, Iestyn Harris, who repeatedly threatened to take control of the match in the first half, without ever quite doing so.

"We dropped far too much ball in the second half. We had them on the rack, but let them back into the game. We had them dead and buried in the first half."

No side marshalled by Andy Farrell is ever dead and buried, however. After struggling to get his kicking game into gear when Wigan were penned back in their own half for long periods, Farrell eventually emerged as the game's dominant figure.

His individual skills have perhaps been overshadowed by Harris' remarkable season, but he remains the most complete player in the code. The longer the game went on, the more apparent that was; his three goals were crucial on the scoreboard, but they were the least of it, alongside his overall contribution.

"It was just as tough as a Test match," Farrell said. "If that's what Grand Final football is about it's going to help us get better every year and I want to be a part of that."

In several ways, this first Old Trafford final of the revamped Super League area did mark a genuine evolution.

There was a greater intensity about the action than in the old Premiership final, which often seemed to have been tagged on to the end of the season. The feeling was that the players had been building up to this, although, as Leeds found out, that is no guarantee that they will produce their best.

Much depended, of course, on whether the public warmed to the idea. Gates for the earlier rounds had been vaguely disappointing and, only a week ago, Super League big-wigs would happily have settled for a face-saving 30,000 at Old Trafford on Saturday night.

Instead - and on the wettest day most potential spectators could remember - more than 43,000 gave the occasion a vibrant atmosphere.

"The crowd were the real heroes of the night," said a relieved Super League managing director, Maurice Lindsay. "A hundred mile round journey from Yorkshire was no joke in those conditions and there were also a lot of neutrals there.

"This event is going to go from strength to strength over the next 10 years."

The other fair bet is that Wigan and Leeds will again be involved in the battle for the title next year.

Wigan have a big turnover of personnel coming up, but not one that will leave them appreciably weaker, one suspects.

As for Leeds, their long wait for a major trophy goes on, not because they haven't improved enormously as a club, but because they failed to do themselves full justice.

They have reached finals before and been swamped. In this one, they merely got a reminder that beating Wigan in a big rugby league occasion involves getting just about everything right. They did it twice in Super League: it says much about Wigan's know-how that Leeds could not repeat the feat when it really counted.

Wigan: Radlinski; Robinson, Connolly, Moore, Bell; Paul, Smith; O'Connor, McCormack, Mestrov, Holgate, Gilmour, Andy Farrell. Substitutes used: Cowie, Cassidy, Haughton, Johnson.

Leeds: Harris; Rivett, Blackmore, Godden, Cummins; Powell, Sheridan; Masella, Newton, Fleary, Morley, Anthony Farrell, Glanville. Substitutes used: Mathiou, St Hilaire, Hay, Holroyd.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).