Wigan back in the game

Dave Hadfield reflects on a powerful display that opens the championshi p race
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The Independent Online
JUST as they have done so many times over the past decade, Wigan were at their irresistible best when they most needed to be, keeping the race for the Stones Super League alive and finely balanced on Friday night.

Defeat by St Helens at Central Park would have put a five- point gap between the two sides at the top of the table. It would not have been impossible to bridge the gap, but the Saints would have had to experience a bad attack of the staggers to let slip the championship - a title that Wigan have held for the past seven seasons.

Instead, the battle is perfectly poised. Saints still have a one-point advantage but Wigan have the better points difference and the psychological boost of their 35-19 victory.

The key question now is how Saints will react to their first defeat of the season and their first under the coaching of Shaun McRae, a defeat that did not seem totally unexpected. For all their recent success, during the week McRae appeared to be almost expecting to lose at Central Park, although he called it "budgeting for defeat".

"It's like a speech you write and hope you're not going to have to make," McRae said. "You prepare for this, knowing full well that one day it's going to happen. We've just got to get on with it, learn from it and accept that we were beaten by a better side on the night."

If McRae wanted an excuse, it could be that too many of his players were well short of optimum fitness. Their record signing, Paul Newlove, despite one magnificent try, struggled throughout against the after- effects of a debilitating chest infection and he will almost certainly miss England's deciding match in the European Championship against Wales at Cardiff on Wednesday.

Anthony Sullivan and Simon Booth both face lay-offs, while the Australian forward Derek McVey finished visibly exhausted after playing a full but unscheduled 80 minutes only a day after being cleared for a come-back following a knee operation.

The depth of Saints' squad is about to be tested, but so too is Wigan's. Friday night was a farewell appearance for Scott Quinnell, off to Richmond without much of an attempt being made to keep him. He is a forward capable of breaking tackles, and Wigan will miss him more than they imagine.

The absence for three weeks of Henry Paul, who sustained ankle ligament damage, will be another blow, as will the disappearance of Va'aiga Tuigamala for most of next month, when he will be playing for Western Samoa in the Oceania Cup.

That coincides with the period when the title may well be decided. On consecutive Friday nights, first St Helens and then Wigan visit the Bradford Bulls, who are one of the few sides who could, on a good night, upset one or both. Indeed, McRae still believes that Bradford, with a winning run between now and the end of the season, could still make a bid to claim the title themselves.

A more likely scenario is that they will be the spoilers who deny one team and hand the championship to the other. Unless London Broncos, who also have to play both the title contenders at home, are left to do the job.

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