Wigan stage a great escape

Rugby League: Widnes 23 Wigan 28 (After extra time; 16-16 at 80 min)
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The Independent Online
ANYONE coming fresh and innocent to the game in time for this, the greatest escape of Wigan's trophy-winning rampage of the last decade, would wonder why the rules of rugby league are being changed this week.

No tampering with the code could have produced a more thrilling spectacle than this Regal Trophy quarter-final, won by two Wigan tries in the second period of extra time after Widnes had led for most of the first 80 minutes.

Whether or not moving the touchlines in order to narrow the field, as Wigan claimed had been done, played any part in Widnes's ability to compete as equals, it was still a mighty display by the underdogs from the First Division.

"It was the most tense of the close calls in which I've been involved," said the Wigan coach, Graeme West, who has seen a few late reprieves during his time at Central Park, "because the lead changed hands so many times."

And yet it all began as a traditional Wigan stroll, with their teenage winger, Rob Smyth, putting them ahead after only 87 seconds following a touchline break by Va'aiga Tuigamala. The way Widnes responded showed that, narrow pitch or not, there was nothing wrong with the dimensions of their hearts.

Christian Tyrer, who had an outstanding match, landed a penalty and they then took the lead when Paul Hulme went through Tuigamala's attempted tackle to score in the corner. A further two goals from Tyrer consolidated their lead as their pack, notably the second rower, Lee Hansen, playing to his Tongan World Cup form, outshone their opposite numbers.

Another of their best performers, the England utility forward, Steve McCurrie, put them in a winning position when he got his pass out of the tackle for a Mike Pechey try which, with Tyrer's conversion, put them 12 points ahead. If Tyrer's drop goal attempt a few minutes later had gone over instead of hitting the post, Widnes would surely have gone on to record a remarkable victory.

Instead, Wigan, unbeaten in any cup competition for almost two years, stormed back like men playing to defend their pride. Helped by the absence of McCurrie in the sin bin - Andy Platt and Tuigamala had already spent 10 minutes each there - Wigan clawed back the game, Scott Quinnell going over from Shaun Edwards's pass and Henry Paul and Tuigamala moving the length of the field for another try; Andy Farrell kicked both goals.

Both sides had chances to break the deadlock, but extra time it had to be. Shane Cooper's drop goal put Widnes ahead, Tuigamala ploughed over for his second and, just as Widnes finally appeared to have run out of hope, Darren Wright put them back in front with a battling diagonal run after a scrum.

Midway through the final period, Wigan at last came up with something unanswerable. Tuigamala and Paul again took the ball from one end of Naughton Park to the other for Smyth's second, and then a ball raked back from the ruck - something that will be banned from tomorrow - brought a clincher for Gary Connolly. A winning margin of five points mocked the tension of the afternoon.

Wigan won not because they were the better team on the day, but because they had individuals capable of producing something startling when it was mostneeded. "When you have players of the calibre of Inga Tuigamala and Henry Paul," West said, "they can always change the game." Change the game? If Wigan were given a grilling like this every week, there would be no need.

Widnes: Broadbent; Devereux, Pechey (Kelly, 93), Wright, Thorniley; Tyrer, Cooper; Makin (J Cassidy, 80), Gartland, Platt, P Hulme, Hansen, McCurrie.

Wigan: Robinson (Offiah, 67); Smyth, Tuigamala, Connolly, Offiah (Murdoch, h-t); Paul, Edwards; O'Connor (Cowie, 67), Hall, Cowie (Quinnell, 58), Haughton, M Cassidy, Farrell.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).