Rugby League: Wigan taken to the limit: Regal display from spirited Salford but Mather's last-minute try makes final difference for the holders

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The Independent Online
Salford. .12

Wigan. . .18

VA'AIGA TUIGAMALA saw for himself that, whatever they might think in the southern hemisphere, Wigan do not invariably have everything their own way. The latest addition to Central Park's array of talents watched a classic semi-final in rugby league's Regal Trophy from the stand and joined the collective sigh of Wigan relief as they survived a fearsome onslaught from an Andy Gregory- inspired Salford.

Three times in the last 20 minutes, Salford went painfully close to taking a lead that they looked well capable of holding to take them into the final against Castleford in two weeks' time.

Twice they were foiled by a goalpost, with Steve Blakeley hitting one after a penalty for obstruction that earned Joe Lydon 10 minutes in the sin-bin and Gregory's drop goal attempt also thudding into the woodwork.

Phil Ford, whose mazy running was an exciting part of Salford's impressive armoury, then failed to touch down in the corner with five minutes to go, Jason Robinson's tackle knocking the ball out of his hands after Gregory and Peter Williams had sent him diving for the line.

By that time Wigan were back in front, thanks to Andy Farrell's penalty after Andy Burgess had gone high on Phil Clarke, but the holders of the trophy could not feel remotely safe until Martin Offiah's lofted pass sent Barrie-Jon Mather on a long run for the clinching try in injury time.

Tuigamala, who had only seen two live games of rugby league previously, said that the match had been every bit as hard, fast and exciting as he had expected. 'It has shown me the standard I must aim for,' he said. 'The key for me is patience, although I am eager to get out there.'

It had looked like being a routine Wigan victory in the early stages, when they had two tries disallowed for forward passes before Shaun Edwards kicked ahead and scored in the ninth minute.

But led by Gregory, the former Wigan scrum-half, Salford staged the first of their storming comebacks. Helped by a knock-on by Offiah, Salford poured on the pressure and were rewarded with a penalty from Blakeley and a try made by Gregory for Ford.

Wigan stayed in front with a penalty from Farrell, kicking capably in the absence of Frano Botica, and seemed to be taking control before half-time when a superb run from the outstanding Robinson released Gary Connolly to send in Offiah.

Salford showed tremendous resilience, though, and drew level early in the second half when Gregory, inevitably, sent Burgess through a gap and Bob Marsden scored despite Andy Platt's tackle.

It was a match that showed that Wigan are never beaten until both sides are in the showers. It also showed Tuigamala just how difficult it is going to be for him to earn an automatic place. Connolly oozes class in the centre, Mather showed again how well he has adapted to his new position and while Offiah sometimes looked diffident, he demonstrated his ever- present threat by scoring one try and setting up another.

Tuigamala was most impressed, however, by the performance of Robinson, who shaded Gregory in the man of the match voting. 'He obviously has a huge future,' said the New Zealander. 'It was good to see him beating men on the inside and the outside. That's what I must try to do.'

Although his new team- mates could be considered a little fortunate to have escaped against the club who inflicted their last Regal Trophy defeat on them two years ago, they have shown their new recruit what will be required of him in the future.

Salford: Tries Ford, Marsden; Goals Blakeley 2. Wigan: Tries Edwards, Mather, Offiah; Goals Farrell 3.

Salford: G Jack; J Critchley, M Birkett, P Williams, P Ford; S Blakeley, A Gregory; D Young (G Stazicker, 77), M Lee, T O'Connor, P Forber, C Tauro (B Marsden, 40), A Burgess.

Wigan: J Lydon; J Robinson, B-J Mather, G Connolly, M Offiah; S Panapa (Cowie, 40), S Edwards; K Skerrett, M Dermott (M Cassidy, 47), A Platt, N Cowie (D Betts, 27), A Farrell, P Clarke.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).

(Photograph omitted)