Rugby League: Saints inflict woes on Wigan: Championship race is brought to life in timely fashion as Ropati runs amok

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The Independent Online
St Helens. .41

Wigan. . . . 6

ST HELENS breathed new life and uncertainty into a Championship race that was acquiring an air of inevitability with an extraordinary display that handed Wigan their first away defeat in 13 months.

A loss at Knowsley Road yesterday would have left the Saints four points adrift with a match less to play. Against specialists in the business end of the season like Wigan, that situation could have been called hopeless.

Instead, they are now level and Wigan have suffered their heaviest defeat since Queensland put 40 points past them in 1983.

Saints were exceptional value for even such an astonishing scoreline. They recovered from conceding an early try and goal to Frano Botica to play the most brilliant rugby, hurling the ball around as they always do, but almost never dropping it, which is sometimes the down-side of their expansive style.

They soon overhauled the deficit, Alan Hunte going over for the first of his two tries from Shane Cooper's pass after Chris Joynt had been stopped just short of the line.

One of a number of lapses around the play-the-ball then let Sonny Nickle tap the ball to himself and plunge over for the first of his two tries. A sweeping move from a scrum saw Gary Connolly and David Lyon send Hunte over in the corner.

The outstanding Tea Ropati was giving Wigan all manner of problems. It was after one of his many breaks that Joynt went over from close range, and four goals from Paul Loughlin completed the transformation before the game was half-way through.

Ropati's run, Gus O'Donnell's kick and Lyon's dive onto the loose ball consolidated the lead before Wigan lost Kelvin Skerrett, who was sent off for a high tackle on Jarrod McCracken.

Nickle and Andy Platt were sin-binned for starting a fight that briefly involved a number of other players, and George Mann - who proved to be the best forward on the field - also took an enforced rest of 10 minutes for holding back Phil Clarke.

All this was merely an interruption to Saints' main business of the afternoon - playing Wigan off the park. Hunte's cross-kick, Phil Veivers's linking pass and Nickle's out-flanking gallop brought another try. In addition, O'Donnell landed a mickey-taking drop goal and Ropati fittingly capped the rout with a touch-down fashioned out of Nickle's charge and Cooper's marvellous pass.

Quite apart from the scale of the defeat and Skerrett's possible suspension, Wigan finished with a list of injury worries. Martin Offiah went off with a dislocated shoulder that could keep him out for a month, Denis Betts has a damaged hip and Dean Bell and Andy Platt are thought to have broken hands.

That made it just about the worst afternoon John Monie has experienced at Wigan. 'All credit to Saints,' he said. 'Everything they did came off and we didn't have a good player on the field, but I've always known that you can't play at this level without copping a couple of defeats like this.' Mike McLennan knows Wigan well enough to expect them to bounce back, but at least they now have something to bounce back from and the Championship is infinitely more compelling as a result.

St Helens: Lyon; McCracken, Connoly, Loughlin, Hunte; Ropati (Veivers, 63), Cooper; Neill (O'Donnell, 40), Dwyer, Harrison (Ropat, 72), Mann, Nickle, Joynt.

Wigan: Hampson; Panapa, Bell, Farrar, Offiah (Robinson, 14); Edwards, Botica; Cowie (McGinty, 23), Crompton, Skerrett, Betts (Cowie, 40), Platt, Clarke.

Referee: R Whitfield (Widnes).

Slick Leeds, results, page 19

(Photograph omitted)