Wigan wilt at The Willows

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Salford 26 Wigan 16

After 43 games and nine years Wigan's domination of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup eventually came to an end yesterday as Salford made history at The Willows.

Salford, excluded from the Super League but First Division Champions in the season just ended, were fully worthy of the success. Their ex-Wigan nucleus, from their coach, Andy Gregory, through to four players in their starting line-up, drew inspiration from their personal playing histories and used it to bring to an end Wigan's wonder years.

"It's the proudest moment of my career," said Gregory, who played and won in five Wembley finals with Wigan. "From first hearing the draw we were looking forward to it and the lads were tremendous today."

Although one former Wigan player, Sam Panapa, limped off early with an ankle injury, the other three all played the major roles in this famous victory, as any scriptwriter worth his salt would have required.

Steve Blakeley was a logical choice as man of the match, kicking five goals from as many attempts and tormenting his old club with his sparkling runs through what so often has been an impregnable defence.

Scott Naylor, another whose Wigan career was short and far from glorious, had a marvellous game at centre, scoring two tries and charging onto the ball like a man possessed.

Salford got change out of pounds 50,000 for the pair of them, whilst Steve Hampson cost nothing when he arrived via Halifax.

The 33-year-old full-back, himself the veteran of five Wigan Cup-winning sides before he was shown the door two and a half years ago, rolled back the years with a rock-solid display.

As the final hooter sounded and, even in their bitter disappointment, Wigan found the grace to congratulate their former team-mates. Hampson could not resist a shouted comment to the club's chairman, Jack Robinson.

"You didn't want me, did you?" he asked. "I've been carrying a grudge," he explained later. "Not against the lads but against the chairman. But I've got rid of that grudge now."

Wigan could have few complaints about the way in which their astonishing run, stretching back to their first round defeat at Oldham in February 1987, came to an end.

Both sides had any number of close calls, but it was the side from the lower division that had the cutting edge when it mattered, as well as the enthusiasm to sustain their effort to the end.

They gave warning of their mood from the start, with David Young getting to Mark Lee's kick for the first try in the fifth minute. Although Wigan had two tries disallowed, it was also Salford who scored next, Blakeley's twinkling run setting up the position from which Lee's pass sent Naylor in for his first try.

Blakeley's third goal gave Salford a 14 point lead, but there were ominous echoes of some of Wigan's great escapes over the last nine years when Henry Paul and Gary Connolly linked for Va'aiga Tuigamala to go in at the corner just before the interval.

But Salford opened the second half with a second try from Naylor and, even though Wigan came back through Martin Offiah, Scott Martin's score lifted the tension for the last 10 minutes.

The irrelevance of Tuigamala's second in injury time was illustrated by the peremptory way he put the ball down. The game - and with it an unforgettable era - was over.

As Shaun Edwards, the survivor from the last Cup defeat, said: "We won't realise it's finished until we see two other teams walk out at Wembley."

Could one of them be Salford? If they could summon up this sort of passion and purpose in their next two matches, anything is possible.

Or as Gregory, irrepressible as ever, put it: "I'm not saying we'll win the cup... but we've a better chance than Wigan." And there have not been many sides this last decade able to say that.

Salford: Hampson; McAvoy, Naylor, Martin, Rogers; Blakeley, Lee; Young, P Edwards, Eccles, Forber, Savelio, Panapa (Burgess 18). Substitute not used: Davys.

Wigan: Connolly; Robinson, Radlinski, Tuigamala, Offiah; Paul, S Edwards; Cowie (O'Connor 50), Hall, O'Connor (Skerrett 27), Quinnell, Haughton (Craig 50), Farrell.

Referee: D Campbell (Widnes).

Round-up, page 17

WIGAN'S UNBEATEN RUN

1988: First round Bradford 2-0 (h); Second round Leeds 30-14 (h); Third round Widnes 10-1 (h); Semi-final Salford 34-4 (at Burnden Park); Final Halifax 32-12.

1989: First round Doncaster 38-6 (a); Second round Bradford 17-4 (a); Third round Oldham 12-4 (a); Semi-final Warrington 13-6 (at Maine Road); Final St Helens 27-0.

1990: First round Hull KR 6-4 (a); Second round Dewsbury 30-6 (h); Third round Wakefield 26-14 (a); Semi-final St Helens 20-14 (at Old Trafford); Final Warrington 36-14.

1991: First round Castleford 28-4 (a); Second round Rochdale 72-4 (a); Third round Bradford 32-2 (h); Semi-final Oldham 30-16 (at Burnden Park); Final St Helens 13-8.

1992 First round Salford 22-6 (a); Second round Warrington 14-0 (h); Third round St Helens 13-6 (a); Semi-final Bradford 71-10 (at Burnden Park); Final Castleford 28-12.

1993 Preliminary round Hull 40-2 (h); First round Dewsbury 20-4 (a); Second round St Helens 23-3 (h); Third round Halifax 19-18 (a); Semi-final Bradford 15-6 (at Elland Road); Final Widnes 20-14.

1994: Fourth round Wakefield 24-16 (h); Fifth round Hull 22-21 (a); Quarter- final Featherstone 32-14 (h); Semi-final Castleford 20-8 (at Headingley); Final Leeds 26-16.

1995: Fourth round St Helens 16-16 (h) 40-24 (a); Fifth round Batley 70-4; Quarter-final Widnes 26-12 (a); Semi-final Oldham 48-20 (at Huddersfield) bt Oldham 48-20; Final Leeds 30-10.

1996: Fourth round bt Bramley 74-12; Fifth round 26-16 to Salford (a).

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