A great final between the two great rivals that was
tight as a drum throughout and ended up with Wigan having a chance to
win it in the final minute and alas ending up losing it.
Alas it was a repeat of the 1971 Championship Final
in which St Helens also scored a winning try from a failed drop goal
attempt, with a ball bouncing so unkindly for Wigan, whilst they were left to rue the cost of missed goals, then six
failed attempts by Colin Tyrer, here two by Zak Hardaker.
It's hard to criticise Zak for the two misses but the
margin of the try conversion hitting the crossbar ultimately cost Wigan
this title. The difference between 6-2 and 4-2 was self evident by
Saints levelling up with a penalty goal and then attempting the drop
goal that resulted in the winning try. Without that I cannot see how
Saints would have found a try against a Wigan side that had defended
magnificently all night.
You can't say Wigan were hard done by though. This
was so even a battle and the blunt truth of it was that St Helens were
stronger in the pack and although the errors were few and far between,
the majority came from Wigan and were pretty avoidable. A couple of high
shots, a poor pass from Sean O'Loughlin on a first tackle after a rare
St Helens error were the smallest of factors but the match came down to
the smallest of factors.
The first half saw Saints start the stronger but
Wigan did a job on Alex Walmsley. The continually swamped all over him
in defence. Saints found some traction elsewhere but Wigan began to
grown more into the contest when Walmsley and James Graham were seen off
onto the interchange bench.
Saints only threat was coming on the last tackle but
both Bevan French and Joe Burgess in particular were dealing with bombs
in strong fashion.
Ultimately the only points of the first half came
right on the hooter with a penalty goal being kicked by Lachlan Coote
after a clear shoulder charge by Morgan Smithies. 2-0 in the context of
this battle was a bigger lead than it would ever be,
Wigan had more chances second half and when Jake
Bibby was sent over in the right corner on 66 minutes it felt like a
huge moment in the game. Like I said though, Hardaker's penalty hitting
the crossbar would prove to be significant with the score just at 4-2
instead of 6-2.
That was because on 73 minutes St Helens levelled
with a second penalty from Coote. Harsh penalty against Jackson Hastings
for a high shot, I thought it hit the chest but it was given after video
replays and a pause in play which is always frustrating.
At 4-4 the prospect of extra time loomed until with
two minutes to go Theo Fages was called offside and Wigan had a penalty
goal to win the match with 110 seconds left on the clock. It was 46
metres out and half way towards the left touchline, so a difficult kick
to say the least. Many have suggested better odds would have been to
kick for touch and go for the drop goal but as Adrian Lam suggested
afterwards had that failed he would have been slaughtered for not going
for goal. In the hindsight now of what was to come it's easy to
criticise but it's hard to turn down a penalty goal attempt to win any
match, let alone a Grand Final.
The attempt sailed wide right and failure of it to go
dead gave Saints 51 seconds with the ball and they got up the
other end, hit the post with a drop goal attempt and the bounce of the
ball was wicked for Bevan French and Jack Welsby was just onside and had
enough in goal room to claim the match and title deciding try.
Adrian Lam said the most crucial thing to what
happened was that Wigan didn't put an effort in to chasing down the
missed goal. Saints got 30 metres on that return and it gave them the
momentum to go on. Easy metres had been hard to come by but Wigan never
got set in that whole defensive set and that boils down to the smallest
of factors yet again.
Personally if your judging the tight margins, Saints
just about deserved the victory. Your talking a brexit vote type margin
but they just edged it I felt and to be honest that shouldn't be too
I've said it before, this St Helens side have been
ripe and ready for what they've achieved in the last three years. In
fact they may have under achieved slightly winning nothing in 2018 and
losing the Cup Final in 2019 because Wigan have been in transition for a
lot of that time.
Wigan are still turning over a lot of their heartbeat
from the last decade. Sam Tomkins, Joel Tomkins, Dan Sarginson, George
Williams, Michael McIlorum, Anthony Gelling, Josh Charnley, Lee Mossop,
Dom Crosby & Ryan Sutton have all been moved on in the last few years whilst Sean O'Loughlin and Ben Flower have come to pasture, Joe Burgess is moving on and quite clearly Tony Clubb and Thomas Leuluai are not bright in
the future whether they are maintained for 2021 or not. That's almost a starting line up right there and thats not even mentioning the huge presence of Shaun Wane.
In comparison 11 of St Helens 2017 beaten play off side played in this
Grand Final and Mark Percival surely would have been had he been fit, so they've been pretty solid as a core. That is important to put into context I think.
When we kicked off at St Helens in 2019 for Adrian
Lam's first match this squad hadn't seen Bevan French, Jackson Hastings,
Harry Smith, Morgan Smithies, Brad Singleton, Liam Byrne, Ethan Havard,
Joe Shorrocks etc and Oliver Partington had only played five times and Joe Bullock was on debut that night.
You add in Jai Field and the return of John Bateman
and this squad will grow in both age and experience. So to be so close
given that will be a huge prospect.
Wigan in the end lost this final because they were a
little bit short in the pack in comparison to St Helens. Wigan's front
row experience in 2020 was Tony Clubb, George Burgess and Ben Flower and
they all missed more than half the season. Captain O'Loughlin's swansong
year also saw him play just 8 times.
It's remarkable that a side that couldn't lay a glove
on St Helens in 2019 plugged that gap to an extent they were a bugs dick
away from winning the league but it highlights that the future is there
and the transition is waiting to be completed ahead of next year.
Next years side will have moved on from practically
all of the side that won the last league title in 2018. That's the
transition Wigan have been on and the key is to grow again and a pack
that can get those backs on the front foot more often that they have
been in 2020, despite winning the league leaders shield, is the margin
that Wigan need to improve. George Burgess signing didn't work and its
sad because had he been fit I think he'd have been the difference in
Wigan will be in the running again and the efforts of
the last two years to input so many youngsters into the squad should pay
dividends in a much longer season with a youthful side having the depth
and longevity of energy when it comes down to it. As ever though, we
shall see. The lottery of a play off system means what happens for 8
months sometimes can count for little
Excitement should be aplenty though for 2021. This
Grand Final was a cruel loss but from the state of Wigan when they left
the field at St Helens in the 2019 Play Offs to this game was huge. If
they can make that amount of progress again.......!