Wigan taken to the edge

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The Independent Online
FOR most of this breathtakingly dramatic Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie, it seemed that London was destined to see a stranger sight this spring than the tower without its ravens or the M25 without traffic jams. Wigan were not going to Wembley.

No side have suffered more from Wigan's domination of this competition than their near neighbours. St Helens, never behind throughout the game and only dragged back from the brink of victory by Martin Hall's try in the 71st minute, will feel that they should have made up for all that yesterday.

The weight of eight Challenge Cup defeats by Wigan in the last 13 years has lain heavily on St Helens, so it was little wonder that their breakthrough after 90 seconds and their performance for most of the half was greeted with rapture by their supporters at Central Park.

Wigan, who so often overwhelm sides in the early stages, conceded two quick penalties to allow Saints into an attacking position. Bobby Goulding's reverse pass to Ian Pickavance gave him a sight of the try-line but there was still plenty to do to get over and Pickavance showed great determination to get there.

Goulding added the goal points, but Saints' initial euphoria did not last long. A fumble by Sonny Nickle allowed Wigan to exert their first pressure and although Va'aiga Tuigamala had trouble taking Frano Botica's pass, his juggling had the effect of wrong-footing Saints and giving him the opportunity to power his way over the line.

Botica missed that kick, and Goulding's penalty after Wigan were caught offside gave Saints a four point lead which they defended safely against dangerous thrusts from Gary Connolly and Phil Clarke, until it was halved by Botica's penalty for a holding down offence.

Saints were still making a surprising amount of ground and when Kieron Cunningham went through from acting half-back, Wigan were caught short- handed on their left flank. Nickle compounded the damage with another drive and his pass sent Alan Hunte in at the corner.

Wigan's lack of their usual poise was summed up by Martin Offiah's pass, directed at Tuigamala's ankles and duly knocked on, that gave Saints possession again. Only David Lyon's failure to take Pickavance's ball saved Wigan from going further behind before half-time.

This was rugby league at its most primeval as both sides battered each other's try-lines early in the second half until Denis Betts finally fought his way over from Henry Paul's pass. Botica's conversion levelled the scores.

This was a point at which Saints' heads could have gone down. But another inspiring run from young Cunningham, throwing Shaun Edwards over his shoulder like a bag of swag, put them on the attack. Mick Cassidy went high on Goulding and the subsequent penalty put them in the lead once more.

Goulding, who began his career at Central Park, added a drop goal to that penalty to edge Saints further ahead. The admirable Pickavance was the unlikely contributor of another drop goal from an even more unlikely angle.

The last nine minutes were almost unbearable and not only for those from these two south Lancashire towns. Offiah could not weave a path through but found Hall in support for the equalising try, with Botica's kick drifting wide.

Then Goulding hit the post with what could so easily have been the decisive drop goal and Connolly was tackled into touch at the corner when his electrifying spurt seemed to have put him in for the winning try.

Now they must do it all again on Wednesday, although they are unlikely to do it quite like this.

Wigan: Paul; Robinson, Tuigamala, Connolly, Offiah; Botica, Edwards; Skerrett, Hall, Cowie, Betts, Farrell, Clarke.

St Helens: Prescott; Hunte, Lyon, Gibbs, Sullivan; Veivers, Goulding; Neill, Cunningham, Pickavance, Joynt, Nickle, Cooper.

Referee: J Holdsworth (Kippax).