Rugby Union: Widnes show spirit, Wigan the mastery


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Widnes. 14

Wigan. .20

Wigan won their sixth successive Challenge Cup after the fiercest of struggles from Widnes, who became only the second side to have a man sent off at Wembley.

Richie Eyres, the scorer of the first try of a gripping but sometimes error-strewn game, was dismissed in the 65th minute for elbowing Martin Offiah in the head after the Wigan winger had passed the ball.

Until yesterday, Sid Hynes of Leeds - against Leigh in 1971 - was the only man to walk around the track to the Wembley tunnel on his own, but there was never much doubt after Russell Smith, the youngest Cup final referee, got a detailed report from his touch judge that Eyres would be joining him.

Before and after that sad interlude, Widnes gave Wigan their biggest challenge at Wembley since Hull in 1985 and an infinitely greater fright than any of their last five opponents. Twice in the first half, Widnes managed to subject Wigan to a sensation they have not experienced during their five years of Wembley supremacy by scoring a try to put them behind.

The game had already established its mood of technical shortcomings and high excitement by the sixth minute, when Widnes took the lead for the first time.

Bobby Goulding hoisted a high kick of a sort which is normally a routine affair for Steve Hampson. With Jason Robinson also leaping for the same ball, however, Hampson knocked on, David Myers retrieved it on the wing and Widnes were in an enviable attacking position.

Goulding exploited the opportunity to the full by finding Eyres with a crisp pass, and although the second-rower seemed to have been stopped by a two-man tackle before the line, he shrugged Frano Botica off his shoulders and reached out to score, with Jonathan Davies adding the goal.

Straight from the kick-off, David Hulme knocked on, giving Wigan almost as good an offensive platform as the one from which Widnes had just scored. Robinson and Denis Betts almost fashioned a try immediately, Robinson being turned on to his back over the try line by a combination of Stuart Spruce and Darren Wright.

The drop-out continued Wigan's pressure. Dean Bell kept the ball moving left and Botica held up his pass cleverly for Kelvin Skerrett to storm on to the ball. He went through Wright's attempted tackle and Spruce did not have the bulk to hold him. Botica brought Wigan level with the goal.

Widnes's second try began with a penetrative run by Spruce followed by strong drives from Harvey Howard and Esene Faimalo that brought them deep into the Wigan half.

Then it was the turn of Kurt Sorensen, 36-years-old and playing his last game before retirement. With the Wigan forwards surprisingly slow to get into their defensive positions, Sorensen ran over the top of Botica and bumped off Hampson's tackle with a thrust from the hip. Davies was again on target, but again Widnes squandered the lead.

Edwards' deep kick forced John Devereux to pick up and run the ball out of defence. He chose to run into Offiah and Andrew Farrar and lost the ball in the tackle. Offiah scooped it up on the wing and lofted his pass inside for Bell to score with ease and give Botica a comfortable goal with which to break the 34-year-old club record for goals in a season.

Three minutes into stoppage time, Wigan finally got into their accustomed position at Wembley. Andrew Currier was penalised for offside and Botica landed the goal.

The first strains of Wigan's anthem 'Here we go' did not start until the second minute of the second half. Farrar got his pass out of a tackle to Betts and Davies' finger-tip ankle tap seemed to have saved Widnes. They soon found otherwise. Edwards brought Bell steaming on to the ball and he weathered a two-man tackle to get his pass to Sam Panapa for another converted try.

Widnes got back within a try and a goal of Wigan when Davies kicked a penalty after Wright had been pushed over by Martin Dermott. Widnes kicked deep into Wigan territory looking for the mistake that could put them back on terms, but it was Wigan who looked dangerous in attack. Andrew Farrell, the 17-year-old substitute, seemed to have put Offiah away for a clinching try after a gallop down the wing but he dipped a toe into touch just before releasing the ball.

Phil Clarke also got a glimpse of daylight on a threatening wide run but play was brought back for Eyres' tackle on Offiah and Botica missed the penalty that would have made Wigan safe.

Widnes seemed to want to self- destruct, a knock-on by Paul Hulme and dissent by Goulding giving Botica the sort of kick he generally strokes over automatically. But still Wigan could not finish Widnes off, Botica's shot hitting the post.

Widnes could have finished with 11 men, frustration causing Goulding to take a high swing at Robinson. It sparked a flurry of blows among players quick enough to get to the scene of the crime. But this time the referee took the lenient view.

A little run by Devereux and a kick ahead intended for Currier by Goulding deep in injury time were the nearest Widnes could get to a breakthrough. Wigan went rather closer and the man of the match, Bell, almost darted through. But it was not needed; the cushion, though nothing like as soft and comfortable as in the previous five years, was sufficient.

Widnes: Spruce; Devereux, Currier (McCurrie, 55 min), Wright (Currier, 79 min), Myers; Davies, Goulding; Sorensen (Faimolo, 40 min), P Hulme, Howard, Eyres, Faimalo (O'Neill, 27 min), D Hulme.

Wigan: Hampson; Robinson, Lydon (Panapa, 29 min), Farrar, Offiah (Lydon, 79 min); Botica, Edwards; Skerrett (Farrell, 55 min), Dermott, Platt (Skerrett, 77 min), Betts, Clarke, Bell.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).

Scores: Eyres / Davies (try / goal, 6 min, 6-0); Skerrett / Botica (try / goal, 11 min, 6-6); Sorensen / Davies (try / goal, 17 min, 12-6); Bell / Botica (try / goal, 23 min, 12-12); Botica (pen, 40 min, 12-14); Panapa / Botica (try / goal, 41 min, 12-20); Davies (pen, 47 min, 14-20).