For Warrington’s players, Sunday morning will dawn with a dull, bleak dread. The blood will have dried dark red, the bruises ripened to purple, but the memories of another Grand Final loss will be as painfully raw as ever. Three defeats have become four; 63 years of hurt will become 64. Yes: it happened again, and for followers of the Wire, familiarity will breed only a deep, thick contempt.
For Wigan’s coach Shaun Wane, Sunday morning will bring a stranger mix of emotions. After 30 years at the club, this was his final game in charge, and as he stood amid the fireworks, the flames lighting up his features, his victorious players lifting the Super League trophy, he could be forgiven for wondering whether he could have scripted his ending any better.
After nine long months, his side had finally produced a performance to define their season; a performance that in many ways defined his entire tenure: gritty, gutsy and built on scintillating, backs-to-the-wall defence. They are a demanding bunch at the DW, but the one thing they demand above all is silverware. With his third Grand Final triumph to go with a Challenge Cup and a World Club Challenge, Wane has delivered that, and then some.
It was the right result. Warrington gave it their all, enjoyed the bulk of possession and field position, but just as at Wembley in August against Catalans Dragons, their composure deserted them just when they needed it most. Their kicking was innocuous, their lines too predictable, their decision-making questionable. Time and again they were there, camped on the Wigan line, prowling, probing – but, alas, it came to nothing.
It was a muggy, blustery night: almost tropical in its humidity. Rain billowed across Old Trafford in gossamer sheets, offering up a test of handling, a test of kicking, a test of endurance. And just as in their three previous Grand Final defeats, Warrington lost after notching the first score, their late errors almost as predictable as their early surge. “Just like the last one,” the Wigan fans cruelly trilled. “It’s always your year.”
Warrington fans will decry the decision by referee Rob Hicks not to sanction Sam Tomkins for a clear trip on Bryson Goodwin early in the game, or for catching Daryl Clark in the head with his knee: accidentally, but no less perilously for that. But as they say in this game: if you want to know what happened, check the result in tomorrow’s paper. And though some might claim history and pedigree have no place here, as Wigan ruthlessly squeezed out the game in its final quarter, it was hard not to feel on some level that some collective muscle memory was at work here, some twitch of an ancient bloodline that empowered Wigan at the same time as it daunted Warrington.
How else to explain how Josh Charnley, the nerveless winner of three Grand Finals with Wigan, now fumbling the ball in Warrington colours on fifth tackle? How else to explain the way Wigan coolly and clinically drew the sting from the game in its final quarter despite leading by just four points for most of it, subtly anaesthetising a game that at points during its first 40 minutes looked in danger of spilling over.
Tempers were flaring on the pitch, and tempers were flaring off it as well. As the hooter blew for half-time, a jolly melee unfolded in the tunnel as both sides took their frustrations out on each other. Morgan Escare and Bodene Thompson seemed to be the main perpetrators, along with Wigan substitute Romain Navarette, who gloriously sprinted 40 yards down the touchline to get involved. The next 20 minutes, you felt, would be the crucial period for Warrington to claw their way back into the game. Instead, through a mixture of will and skill, Wigan kept the score at 8-4, preserving the advantage they had painstakingly carved out in the first half.
It was Warrington who opened the scoring, Charnley converting Ratchford’s clever offload in the corner. Dom Manfredi levelled the scores for Wigan after a winning dummy from Oliver Gildart, and when Tom Davies found the gas to dive onto George Williams’s clever kick, Wigan somehow found themselves 8-4 up in the break, with the stiff breeze meaning no goals were scored during the entire final.
Wigan hadn’t really earned their lead. But in the second half, they did. The magnificent Manfredi pulled Tom Lineham into touch just a few feet from his own line and earned a splendid black eye for his trouble. Escare took another inadvertent knee in the face from Charnley, and earned his own battle scar. A stunning run from the heroic Ratchford - winner of the Harry Sunderland Trophy even in defeat - was squandered when Wigan turned possession over just two tackles later.
That more or less summed up Warrington’s night. Tomkins missed a penalty to put Wigan 10-4 up, but with three minutes left Manfredi found a way around a ragged, exhausted, Warrington back line to plunge over in the corner. For Warrington, the dream was over. For Wigan, the party could begin.
And so as spotlights lit up the centre of the Old Trafford pitch, Warrington’s devastated players lurked in the darkness, watching Wigan receive the trophy they had given everything for. They had got so close. They had made it to the doorstep. But making it to the doorstep is one thing. Stepping inside is quite another.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies