What was billed as celebration of rugby league at its most expansive turned out to be the most dour of finals, as Wigan won the Challenge Cup for the second time in three years. If the weather was partly to blame, then so was Hull’s ineptitude in the conditions. Have players from the banks of the Humber never seen rain before?
That was the way they made it look and that was the reason that they became the first side since St Helens – beaten 27-0, also by Wigan, in 1989 – to be “nilled” on the big occasion.
Teeming rain before kick-off at Wembley seemed to militate against the sort of spectacular rugby that lit up the old stadium when these two clubs met here in the “best ever” 1985 final. A day this time, surely, for ball security and minimising mistakes.
The teams were as expected, with the key men who have missed games recently, Sam Tomkins and Sean O’Loughlin, named for Wigan, and Hull resisting the temptation to throw Richard Horne straight back in after missing three-months.
A player at the other end of the experience spectrum, Jamie Shaul, was entrusted with the always potentially fraught full-back role, after just a handful of first-team games.
One of Wigan’s most experienced players, Pat Richards, put his kick-off out on the full to give Hull the first chance, but they could make nothing of it. By contrast, the Warriors put Shaul under sustained pressure on their first foray.
Intelligent use of the short passing and kicking game had Hull under the cosh for a full six minutes. They could have been without one man for ten minutes, as well, but the referee, Phil Bentham, decided that a penalty was punishment enough for Danny Tickle’s dangerous mid-air tackle on Tomkins.
In an indirect way, Wigan exacted a heavier price. Hull could not cope with Blake Green’s high kick and Ian Thornley, back in rugby league this season after a stint with Sale, picked up a difficult ball off the juicy turf, sold a dummy to the outside and straightened up to score. Wigan were playing economically, preserving their energy, whilst Hull were already having to go in search of the big play. Jacob Miller’s wild pass over Kirk Yeaman’s head and into touch was just the most extravagant example.
Thornley twice went close to a second try and, with Wigan dominating all the half-time statistics, it was a miracle that they were only six points ahead; it would have been seven if Matty Smith had not missed narrowly with a drop goal attempt.
Mind you, one thing Hull have shown their ability to do in this competition is defend their try-line. They were getting plenty of chance to show it again – and to do so without their captain, Gareth Ellis, who went off after 15 minutes with a rib injury.
Everything was against them, but they were still in there, punching above their weight, like their city’s Olympic gold-medalist, the boxer Luke Campbell, who was there to present the Cup.
The prospect of him presenting it to Hull receded just a little further when Richards added a penalty to his first half conversion, after a high tackle by Richard Whiting on Scott Taylor in front of the sticks.
Then came one of those moments that can turn a cup final on its head, or alternatively spin it around through 360 degrees and put it back where it was before.
The overworked Shaul picked up Smith’s low kick, wove his way out of his 20 and set sail for the other end. It was six points on the way, but Josh Charnley not only ran him down but knocked the ball out of his arms as well.
The balance of fitness and injury was swinging, with Ellis returning and Wigan’s Darrell Goulding carried off on a stretcher. The Warriors edged further ahead through Richards, though, after O’L oughlin was spear-tackled by Aaron Heremaia.
The big Hull contingent sensed a late comeback when they camped in Wigan territory for several minutes, only for them to continue to do what they had done all afternoon, this time with Daniel Holdsworth knocking-on from a drop out. It was an appropriate end to Humberside hopes, but Wigan had still not quite finished.
Two minutes from time, Green, who must have run Smith close as the man of the match, put in a neat, angled chip-kick. Sam Tomkins came from inches onside to pick up and dance through – a piece of skill to shine bright in any conditions.
Hull: Shaul; Crookes, Crooks, Yeaman, Briscoe; Holdsworth, Miller; O’Meley, Houghton, Watts, Ellis, Tickle, Westerman. Substitutes used: Heremaia, Lynch, Pitts, Whiting.
Wigan: S Tomkins; Charnley, Goulding, Thornley, Richards; Green, Smith; Mossop, McIlorum, Flower, Farrell, Hansen, O’Loughlin. Substitutes used: L Tomkins, Dudson, Tuson, Taylor.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington)
Coach Wane has contract doubled
Shaun Wane knew within an hour of the final hooter just what Wigan's victory in a low-scoring Challenge Cup final was worth to him.
Already with a one-year extension to his coaching contract in his pocket, Wane had that instantly doubled by his delighted chairman, Ian Lenagan. But the Wigan-born coach insisted: "I'm really not worried. I just want to enjoy this. I woke up this morning and thought if I could win it, that would be a dream."
Both Wane and his captain, Sean O'Loughlin, tipped the man of the match, Matty Smith, to solve England's problem scrum-half spot for the World Cup. Smith, a former team-mate of Wayne Rooney in Everton's Academy, said: "I came to the game late and it's only in the last two years that I've got the hang of it."
The disappointed Hull coach, Peter Gentle, said he was happy at half-time. "I didn't think we could play as badly again, but the boys proved me wrong," he said.