Rugby League: Wigan step up to takefourth title in a row: Botica breaks hearts of St Helens as well as club points record

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Wigan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25

Castleford. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18

WIGAN carried off the Stones Bitter Championship for a fourth year in a row at Central Park last night, thanks to a blistering start to the second half and the record-breaking marksmanship of Frano Botica.

The former All Black finished with 17 points, beating in the process Fred Griffiths' club record for points in a season set in 1958-59, and ensuring that Wigan would get the win they needed to beat St Helens on points difference in the tightest championship ever.

The match was delicately balanced at 9-6 when Botica scored the try that accompanied his six goals and one drop goal a minute after the interval. Shaun Edwards began the move with a high kick which was picked up by Andrew Farrar. He found Martin Offiah and Botica came looping around the outside with perfect timing to score in the corner and add the conversion for good measure.

Only a brilliant tackle by Graham Steadman denied Botica a second try two minutes later. It was to be the briefest of respites, however, as Dean Bell came straight on to the ball and sent Jason Robinson in at the opposite corner. It was a perfect demonstration of Botica's virtuosity that he should kick this goal from the other touchline with equal aplomb.

Wigan now felt fully in control, with a 20,000 crowd shouting them home on the latest lap of a season that could bring them an unprecedented grand slam of all the major trophies.

Two penalties from Botica, the second of which saw St John Ellis sent to the sin-bin for hitting Denis Betts, increased the security of their position, before the legacy of a long, hard season caught up with them.

Wigan have frequently looked tired recently and their leg-weariness affected them in the last 10 minutes, allowing Mike Ford and Tony Morrison to run in tries through generous holes in their defence.

Two goals from Lee Crooks shrank the lead to a modest seven points, but Wigan were always going to have enough of a cushion to see them safely up the steps of the directors' box to receive the trophy from their former chairman and the Rugby League chief executive, Maurice Lindsay.

Castleford had lived up to their promise to give the would-be champions a run for their money. Crooks scattered defenders with some early runs, Simon Middleton sparkled at times on the wing and Wigan were grateful for the slender lead through Botica's drop goal and penalty.

Castleford continued to look dangerous on the counter, but their bad habit of losing possession on their own 25 caught up with them midway through the half. Peter Coyne was the culprit and Edwards's pass found Phil Clarke with just enough strength to force his way under the sticks, leaving Botica with a formality of a kick.

Castleford's commendable determination not to submit meekly earned its reward when Crooks and Graham Southernwood handled superbly to drive an attack into the Wigan 25. Coyne hoisted a kick and a kind bounce gave Ford his first try of the evening against his old club.

It delayed the moment when Wigan could start to feel confident of retaining their championship. But with Clarke and Andy Platt back in the pack to lend their power and experience to the cause and with Botica in such irresistible form, they are once more worthy champions, if only by the narrowest of margins.

The Wigan coach, John Monie, who will now end his time at the club with a perfect championship record of four titles in four seasons, said: 'This was the most satisfying of the lot. All the players that went on tour with Great Britain last summer have been playing continuously for almost two years. I'm so proud of the way they've hung on to get the job done.'

Wigan: Hampson; Robinson, Bell, Farrar (Mather, 64), Offiah; Botica, Edwards; Platt, Dermott, Betts (Forshaw, 59), Panapa, Farrell, Clarke.

Castleford: Steadman; Middleton, Smith, Anderson, Ellis; Coyne, Ford; Crooks, Southernwood, England (Sampson, 58), Morrison, Ketteridge (Fisher, 58), Nikau.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

----------------------------------------------------------------- STONES BITTER CHAMPIONSHIP ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Wigan 26 20 1 5 744 327 41 St Helens 26 20 1 5 632 345 41 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Steve Simms, the Leigh coach, has put himself out of the running for the positions at Wigan and Castleford by signing a new three-year contract.