RUGBY LEAGUE : Wigan wise to the ways of Wembley

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The Independent Online
Wigan 48

Oldham 20

It was not boredom with the prospect of going to Wembley again that made the Wigan dressing-room at Huddersfield a rather muted and sombre place. The bad news for the rest of the Rugby League is that, even in their eighth season in a row as Silk Cut Challenge Cup finalists, Wigan still have the hunger not just to return but to win once more.

The even worse news is that the culture of perfectionism and self-criticism is now so strong that disappointment at the way they had played against Oldham overrode the pleasure of having won.

Two untidy teams and an untidy referee all contributed to an untidy game, and some Wigan players were positively scathing about the way they had played.

"It was a mess. It must have been like watching rugby union," Phil Clarke said. Self-abasement comes no stronger than that. Shaun Edwards came up with part of the explanation for the rough edges. "We are always liable to drop the ball more these days, because we throw it around so much more," he said.

There are Wigan players who believe that this looser style of play verges on the lax and would make them vulnerable to opponents with less talent but tighter organisation. If such a side exists, however, Oldham are not it.

None of this is to say that there were not good moments and good individual performances to be savoured by a disappointing crowd - perhaps the supporters of both sides thought they already knew the result - at the Alfred McAlpine Stadium.

Denis Betts underlined what a major loss he is going to be by remaining aloof from most of the substandard technique that was in evidence. The centre partnership of Gary Connolly and Va'aiga Tuigamala scored five tries between them, which was a fair reflection of the damage they did to an Oldham defence consistently weak in that area. Tuigamala's dummy to create his second try and Connolly's dash down the touchline for his hat-trick were two of the game's most memorable flashes of skill.

Oldham had their alibis ready before the match. As their coach, Andy Goodway, pointed out, it is difficult for any club to close the gap on Wigan if players' time for training is limited by their commitment to other jobs.

In the time he did have available, Goodway worked hard on fundamentals such as avoiding the concession of penalties, because no side can hope to match Wigan without a fair share of the ball.

Those hours might just as well have been devoted to their day jobs, because Oldham gave up a glut of early penalties. The count was 7-1 at one stage, and although Goodway felt that the referee, Russell Smith, had been harsh on occasion, the basic problem was that his players were tackling too high.

On the other hand, Smith was lenient, in a confused sort of way, in not sending off David Stephenson for a trip with which he tried but, after his team-mates hesitated, failed to prevent Tuigamala's first try. Smith opted to place Stephenson on report; possibly the first case of this new weapon in the referees' armoury being used to avoid the firmer action that was called for.

Stephenson was one of Oldham's better performers, along with Adrian Belle, whose determined running on the right wing brought him two tries. Both substitutes, Craig Richards and David Bradbury, also made an impact in the second half against an uncharacteristically generous Wigan defence.

It is with crumbs like this that sides now content themselves against Wigan. The Cup holders themselves operate according to an entirely different set of standards. That was why the winning dressing-room on Saturday was thick with disappointment as well as the usual deodorant and hair gel.

Considerations of how well or badly they had played technically would seem academic to any other club on the way to Wembley, but the priority that Wigan give to them is what makes them the side they are.

Wigan: Paul; Robinson, Tuigamala, Connolly, Offiah (Mather, 25); Botica, Edwards; Skerrett (Farrell, 34), Hall, Cowie, Betts, Cassidy, Clarke.

Oldham: Gibson; Belle, Topping, Abram, Ranson (Bradbury, 32); Marsh, Crompton; Sherratt (Richards, 34, Sherratt, 55), Stephenson, Temu (Richards, 71), Lord, Faimalo, Kuiti.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).