Wigan's Sevens heaven

Rugby league giants live up to their billing as the favourites with overpowering displays on union's big festival day
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The Independent Online
The longest cold war in the history of sport reached armistice point at Twickenham yesterday as Wigan received the red- carpet treatment from their erstwhile enemies at the Rugby Football Union. Just as they always said they would, the professional ogres from up North marked the occasion by storming the citadel and winning the Middlesex Sevens at their first attempt.

Shaun Edwards and Company had to overcome a setback or two; Harlequins, the very epitome of Southern softy-dom, gave the hardmen from League land the fright of their lives in an epic quarter-final, and that match cost them the services of their sensational uncut attacking diamond, Henry Paul. Paul and Scott Quinnell, who incurred a groin injury, are likely to miss Wigan's Super League match on Tuesday.

In the great scheme of things, however, those problems were of blip proportions. Wigan had pace to burn and power to spare and even though Wasps, inspirationally led by Lawrence Dallaglio and badgered along by the busily effective Andy Gomarsall, denied them the ball for long periods during the final and opened up what should have been a decisive lead, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Not that Wasps did not give it their best shot. First-half tries from Buster White, Gomarsall and Peter Scrivener gave them a 15-point cushion, but by the break Wigan were within touching distance thanks to scores from Inga Tuigamala, Martin Offiah. Gary Connolly, Offiah again, Jason Robinson, and captain Edwards then cut loose in imperious style to tie it up 38-15. Four days after trouncing Bath by 80 points, it was an immense performance and perhaps one of historic significance.

Twickenham's demob-happy Sevens aficionados had been fed some pretty drab fare in recent tournaments. Bath's 1994 victory was achieved by a rag-tag collection of second-teamers while last year's competition was of still lesser vintage, Leicester overpowering a lightweight South African township side in the final. The grand old tournament badly needed a touch of the sublime to save it from ridicule.

The man who provided it was Paul, the 22-year-old utility player whose astonishing versatility has allowed both Wigan and his native New Zealand to field him in any of six positions. Forget Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke and the latest Kiwi hero, Christian Cullen, for a moment. This man would grace any All Black outfit, be it at sevens or fifteens.

He set the virtuoso tone in the opening tie against Richmond despite fluffing his kick-off, much to the amusement of the crowd that began as a slightly curious throng of around 12,000 and ended as a transfixed multitude of 60,000 plus. Two long-range tries either side of the break were breathtaking enough, but it was the thoroughbred runners around him who reaped the greater benefit of his strength, balance and vision.

When Quins seized a wholly unexpected initiative in the quarter final with early tries by Richard Francis and Nick Walshe, it was Paul who turned it round single-handedly with another quality double. Offiah also got in on the act and while respective ankle and leg injuries disrupted the Wigan shape in the later stages of the tournament, a huge psychological hurdle had been safely negotiated

Paul's efforts drew the best from both his clubmates - Andy Farrell rattled up 20 points in the semi-final victory over Leicester - and from the opposition too. Austin Healey, making his final appearance for Orrell, looked almost as dynamic as he mounted a personal, if ultimately unsuccessful, assault on Wasps in the other last-four tie.

Quality can be contagious, obviously. But on this occasion no one looked like catching Wigan.