Wigan count cost of defeat

Rugby League has been turned on its head by Salford's victory. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online
At rugby league grounds across the north of England on Sunday afternoon, supporters with no direct affinity with Salford let rip with a full-throated roar of sheer delight.

It was not due to the fact that Salford were on their way to victory in their Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie. It was because Wigan, for the first time in nine years, were on their way out.

Envy is not an altogether admirable emotion, but you could understand the reaction. The rest of the game felt like mediaeval serfs celebrating the fall of a particularly repressive tyrant.

It would be idiotic to announce the end of Wigan's dominance on the basis of one sub-standard performance against a team of men inspired. But the end of the most remarkable run of success in any competition that British sport has seen over the last decade has far-reaching implications, both for Wigan and the game as a whole.

Apart from the painful blow to their pride, which they absorbed with some dignity on Sunday, the main impact on the Wigan club is financial.

Times were already tough before that cold wind blew through The Willows. If the Central Park finances were in rude health, Wigan would surely have replaced some of their departed stars with players of a similar stature; they have not done so and that omission was always likely to catch them out eventually.

And then there was that business of the pounds 100,000 in World Cup receipts that should have gone to the League but ended up in Wigan's account. A mistake, apparently, but one that highlighted Wigan's relative poverty.

The club's chairman, Jack Robinson, says that there is nothing unusual in money being tight and that Wigan have always sailed close to the wind.

True enough. But, for the last eight seasons, there has been a transfusion of cash generated by a Wembley appearance; that money will not be there to bail them out this time.

"It will make things more difficult," admits Robinson. "But you can't budget on going to Wembley every year."

The players, however, will notice the difference this time, with no handsome Wembley bonus to bump up their earnings to the expected level.

There were those at Salford on Sunday who claimed that an argument about the money on offer for that match was raging as the Wigan coach pulled into the car park, but Robinson denies this.

"They never even asked about the money, so that wasn't a factor," he insists. "We always knew we were vulnerable if we hit a side on top form with more hunger on the day than us."

Wigan remain the hottest of favourites for Super League when it kicks off at the end of March, but the effect on other clubs of their elimination from a competition they have made their own is akin to the introduction of a new prize.

Teams like St Helens and Leeds will feel that the open road lies invitingly before them; a euphoria which could, paradoxically, trip them up before they can take advantage of Wigan's absence.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of a cup that co-incides with rugby league's decision - via Super League - to fine itself into a more elitist form, is that four teams from outside the top division will be in the last eight of the competition.

Wakefield and Hull there, but not Wigan? The rugby league world really was turned on its head at The Willows on Sunday.

"The players were quite down," Robinson said of the short coach ride home. "They were not in a good mood at all. But the end of the Wigan era has been announced a few times before. I don't much mind if it is announced again now."