Rugby League: Wigan work to maintain dominance: Castleford's good start and sensational finish fails to stop treble-winners

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The Independent Online
Castleford. . .20

Wigan . . . . .24

IT WAS only appropriate that the final moments of a season during which Wigan and Castleford have had each other ringed in red on their calendars should consist of another act of high drama at Old Trafford yesterday.

Wigan, apparently assured of a second treble of Championship, Challenge Cup and Premiership in three seasons when they led by 16 points with just five minutes remaining, came within a score of losing their grip on the third strand in their season of achievement.

A freak try when the Castleford subsitute Nathan Sykes, followed up a ricochet from his own head scattered a few seeds of doubt.

But when Richie Blackmore slipped an inside ball for Graham Steadman to grab another converted try in the last minute of normal time, it seemed that a season in which anything could happen between these two was ending with it happening.

In injury-time, Sykes almost got on to the end of passes from Ian Smales and Blackmore which could have sent him galloping towards a try and a sensational finish.

Neither would stick, however, and Wigan held on precariously to win a match they had dominated so comfortably throughout its middle stages.

Castleford made the sort of start sides pray for against Wigan, taking an eight-point lead in the first quarter, thanks to two Lee Crooks goals and a try earned by Dean Sampson's remarkable determination .

Steadman scooped a pass from Mike Ford off his bootlaces and went weaving through the Wigan defence to set up the chance, but Sampson still had to drive through a series of tackles that would have stopped an ox to score.

Andy Farrell soon ploughed over and Wigan's ability to pounce on mistakes and move the ball wide against a wrong-footed defence brought tries from Sam Panapa and Frano Botica.

Until Castleford's stirring fightback, the second half was notable for controversy. Steadman was sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes for stopping Wigan taking a quick tap, but Paul Atcheson escaped with a penalty for a bad high tackle on Tony Smith.

More worrying was the incident that saw Kelvin Skerrett taken to hospital with a suspected broken jaw. There seemed to be nothing untoward as Sampson carried the ball into a tackle, but Skerrett felt he had been struck with an elbow and went off spitting blood and vowing eternal vengeance.

Skerrett's suspected broken jaw would rule him out of the World Club Challenge in Brisbane on 1 June. The Wigan caretaker coach, Graeme West, said that Skerrett's absence would be a severe blow and that he will decide today whether to try to persuade Andy Platt to make the trip.

Skerrett got less sympathy from the Castleford coach, John Joyner. 'He's given enough in his time. He has to be able to take it and he can't have any complaints,' Joyner said.

There were a hot few minutes in store for Sampson, but Wigan seemed to have reasserted their superiority when Botica put over a penalty and converted a try scored by Denis Betts.

The story of Wigan and Castleford's clashes during the 1993-4 season was almost but not quite over.

Wigan: Atcheson; Robinson, Panapa (Lydon, 72), Connolly, Offiah; Botica, Edwards; Skerrett (Cowie, 56), Hall, Cowie (Cassidy, 54), Betts, Farrell, Clarke.

Castleford: Ellis; C Smith, Blackmore, T Smith, Middleton; Steadman, Ford; Crooks (Sykes, 73), Russell, Sampson, Ketteridge (Smales, 49), Hay (Crooks, 80), Nikau.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).