Wigan sign off an era in style

Dave Hadfield salutes a sixth successive championship for the Central Park side and the last under the old regime . . .
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The Independent Online
Wigan 34

St Helens 10

As far as the First Division title is concerned, it is a case of six and out for Wigan.

Victory over St Helens at Central Park yesterday brought not only their sixth successive Stones Bitter Championship, but also made them the last winners in its present form before a shortened season ushering in the Super League makes it the Half of Bitter Championship.

There was no half-measure about the way they set their seal on this piece of rugby league history. "The last line of the record book will always say that Wigan were the last winners," said Denis Betts, who, with a rare sense of symmetry, leaves for Auckland Warriors at the end of the season. "It's not a bad way to go out."

Shaun Edwards, another player with a keen sense of history, has the satisfaction of being the last captain to lift the Championship trophy."I hope the Super League trophy's as good as this, because this has always been one of my favourites," he said.

It was doubly fitting that he should be the last Championship-winning skipper, because Edwards set up three of Wigan's first four tries with glorious passing skills, before finishing with a sprained knee that will suffice for his annual Wembley injury scare.

The dominant image of the match, though, will be that of a unique try. The mark of a dangerous team is their ability to turn defence into attack, but not even Wigan have ever managed to turn a drop-out from under their own sticks into an offensive weapon.

It came immediately after Wigan's fourth try, when Paul Atcheson let Saints' kick-off run dead. Andy Farrell's drop-out bounced on half way, flew backwards, bounced again and sat up for Henry Paul - a specialist kick-chaser on top of all his other skills - to pick up and run between the mesmerised Sonny Nickle and Steve Prescott to score.

Empires and Super Leagues will rise and fall before we see a try quite like that again, and it ensured that Saints would not be able to delay Wigan's celebration.

Saints were ahead 6-2 early in the match, and it would have been 12-2 if Alan Hunte had not dropped the ball with the try-line open. Once Edwards took control, though, there was little doubt the trophy would be required at full-time. His pass sent in Betts in and, although Gary Connolly fumbled Bobby Goulding's kick to put Saints back in front, Wigan drew level through Va'aiga Tuigamala.

Immediately before half-time, the brilliant Paul struck for the first time, taking a sweetly-timed pass from Edwards and drawing and side-stepping Prescott on a 50-yard run to the line.

After the break, Edwards released Martin Offiah and Farrell and Paul produced their party trick, with Atcheson claiming an assist for making it possible. Shane Cooper scored his second try for St Helens, but Martin Hall rounded it off for Wigan and the Championship.

Anyone unaware of the Super League furore and savouring some of the entertainment available at a packed Central Park might not have thought there was too much wrong with the stale, old league we have now.

Nothing, that is, apart from the fact that Wigan always win it in the end.

"We've kill't it," said the woman behind me, by way of an epitaph for the championship. At least Wigan gave it a decent burial.

Wigan: Paul; Radlinski, Tuigamala (Mather, 57), Connolly, Offiah; Botica, Edwards; O'Connor (Atcheson, 35), Hall, Cowie (O'Connor, 62), Betts, Cassidy (Tuigamala, 72), Farrell.

St Helens: Prescott; Hunte, Northey, Loughlin (Matautia, 70), Sullivan (Elia, h-t); Martyn, Goulding; Fogerty (Matautia, 27; Fogerty, 46), Cunningham, Perelini, Dwyer, Nickle, Cooper.

Referee: J Holdsworth (Kippax).

Widnes in Super League,

Results, page 45

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