After 27 league rounds and the play offs, the last pair standing of St Helens and Wigan Warriors fought it out in rugby league’s showpiece event at Old Trafford on Saturday night.
The intensity and rivalry was obvious before kickoff with both sets of fans displaying a healthy dislike for one another and the evidence from the first minute of the match was that both teams were at it. The ferocious early exchanges were then halted as Old Trafford witnessed one of the most shocking moments in Grand Final history. After an off the ball challenge by Saints playmaker Lance Hohaia on Wigan prop Ben Flower, the Welshman responded with a massive right hand haymaker into Hohaia’s chin, knocking the Australian to the deck. Flower then proceeded to land another right hand into the face of the unconscious New Zealander whilst he was lying on the ground.
Predictably there was a large reaction from the St Helens players who were clearly furious with the events. After watching a video replay of the incident referee Phil Bentham had no option but to show Flower a red card, and with the assault being graded F by the RFL today the Wigan forward could face an eight match ban.
Having realised they would have to play the remaining 78 minutes with 12 men it was actually Wigan who began to dominate the game and after some sloppy offensive work from Saints earned a penalty for obstruction which was kicked by Matty Smith. St Helens then responded with a penalty of their own, before Wigan finished off a lovely set with a try in the corner from Joe Burgess on the stroke of half time, which gave the defending champions a 6-2 lead at the break.
St Helens began the second half much better, leaving out the mistakes that had plagued them in the first 40. On 52 minutes the constant pressure told and Saints forward Sia Soliola battered his way over from 7 meters. The try, which was converted by Mark Percival, gave St Helens the lead for the first time in the match. Wigan’s huge chance to cause one of the great upsets came and went 5 minutes later when Tommy Makinson stopped a brilliant solo run from Liam Farrell, pulling the winger down 10 metres short of the line, but with the Saints defensive line in disarray a two man overlap manifested out wide before indecision and poor execution saw the chance squandered and the ball knocked on.
There was a definite swing in momentum after this and Wigan’s extra exertions began to show as they visibly struggled to keep up the intensity in the last 20 minutes. The telling blow came in the 69th when a fantastic banana kick from skipper Paul Wellens was claimed by the soaring Tommy Makinson who climbed above the legless Matty Bowen and scrambled the ball down. With a simple conversion from Percival the game was beginning to slip away from 12 man Wigan.
St Helens saw out the last 10 minutes with few alarms, James Roby kept Wigan pinned back and limited to harmless sets until the final whistle where St Helens could celebrate their first grand final Victory since 2006.
Being without key creative components Jon Wilkin, Jonny Lomax and Luke Walsh through injury, before losing Hohaia in the opening moments, the Saints were the less adventurous side throughout the game, but managed to keep their composure and take their chances well in the knowledge that the Wigan legs would tire.
Ben flower has since publically apologised for his punches on Lance Hohaia, however the Wigan Fans and his teammates will be most aggrieved as they saw their ambitions of Grand Final glory dissipate with his ludicrous moment of madness.
FS Wigan Warriors- 6 St Helens- 14
MOTM- James Roby (St Helens)
Attendance – 70,102
Image courtesy of mirror.co.uk