Wigan took a huge step towards a home semi-final with a 24-22 win over Castleford Tigers in the first round of the Super 8s.
The Cherry and Whites were 20-0 up at half-time and cruising towards the win before Cas made an impressive comeback in the second period, but two penalties from Wigan in the last 40 minutes were enough to edge the victory.
Wigan were dominant right from the start, and they had the lead inside five minutes as George Williams put a clever kick in behind the defence and Liam Marshall chased onto it to score, although Sam Tomkins’ conversion hit the post.
Romain Navarrete made a break but a poor pass saw the chance go begging, and the prop was then held up over the line as the hosts continued to push.
A second try was coming and it was a soft one from Castleford’s perspective, as both Greg Eden and Paul McShane fell off Gabe Hamlin as he drove for the line, for a score converted this time by Tomkins for a 10-0 lead.
They were in again when Marshall had the ball down, but there were few celebrations as video referee Chris Kendall confirmed a knock on in the assist by Joe Greenwood as he beat Kieran Gill to a kick.
It took 24 minutes for Castleford to enjoy their first real attack of the match, and after Jake Trueman’s kick forced a drop out, Mike McMeeken’s offload allowed Joe Wardle to drive for the line. He made it over but lost the ball before grounding, as confirmed by the video referee.
They were quickly made to pay with another two tries for the Warriors, the first of which came again from the work of Williams. He forced the initial drop out, then assisted Dan Sarginson as he drove into the space outside his opposite centre to score.
James Clare then failed to claim a kick to gift another set to Wigan in good position, and Thomas Leuluai’s kick bounced off the defender into the path of the returning Ryan Sutton to pick up and run in, with Morgan Escare converting for a 20-0 half-time advantage.
Cas had a decent spell at the end of the first half and couldn’t get on the scoreboard, but they finally did at the start of the second period thanks to a great individual effort from Trueman, who ran left and slipped through the line to score in the corner.
It looked like there might be a game on for the first time and Wigan acknowledged that, opting to go for the two points, taken by Escare, when McMeeken was penalised for a high shot on Sam Powell.
That didn’t stop the momentum of the Tigers though, as they scored again when Jamie Ellis’ kick to the corner was claimed by James Clare, leaping higher than opposite number Marshall, to touch down.
The visitors were really started to impress themselves on the game, and the gap was down to just a score after their third try just past the hour. Ellis’ kick bounced off the post passing, and McShane was on hand to touch the ball down.
Escare could have relieved the pressure with a drop goal, but he received the ball awkwardly and could only watch his attempt rebound off the crossbar.
That allowed Cas to keep pushing, but they couldn’t work another opportunity and when McMeeken was again guilty of a high tackle, this time on Greenwood, Tomkins put the penalty over to seal the win.
Cas did get points back right on the hooter, as they kept the ball alive moving right and then back left, with the kick missed by the defender to allow Mitch Clark to score under the posts. Ellis got the conversion, his third from four attempts, to narrow the final score to two points.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
Williams return makes a difference
Wigan have lacked creativity in attack in recent weeks, and the return of England stand-off George Williams was exactly what they needed to take advantage of their good spells in the game.
He made his impact within five minutes with an inventive kick in behind for Marshall to chase and score, and got a second try assist for Dan Sarginson’s effort.
Turnaround down the middle
Wigan were absolutely dominant in the first half, and that was down to the efforts of a relentless forward pack which kept the Tigers under pressure and forced a number of errors.
In the second half that was turned on its head, as Castleford stepped things up with the likes of Liam Watts and Adam Milner making a far bigger impression on the game. They fell short in the end but with those big men at their best, they can go toe-to-toe with anyone.
Man of the Match – Paul McShane (Castleford Tigers)
Although Castleford came up short in the end, they needed a player to really lift them to make a contest of things in the second half.
Not for the first time, that man was Paul McShane. His was partly responsible for Gabe Hamlin’s score, which was a reflection of their lacklustre start on the whole, but he stepped to the fore and got Cas moving dangerously from the play the ball while working as hard as ever in defence.
Wigan Warriors 24
Tries: Marshall, Hamlin, Sarginson, Sutton
Goals: Tomkins (2), Escare (2)
Drop Goals: n/a
Castleford Tigers 22
Tries: Trueman, Clare, McShane, Clark
Goals: Ellis (3)
Drop Goals: n/a
Wigan: Tomkins; Davies, Isa, Sarginson, Marshall; Williams, Leuluai; Navarrete, Powell, Flower; Greenwood, Bateman, Hamlin.
Interchanges: Clubb, Sutton, Escare, Partington.
Castleford: Eden; Gill, Wardle, Shenton, Clare; Ellis, Trueman; Watts, McShane, Sene-Lefao; Holmes, McMeeken, Massey.
Interchanges: Webster, Moors, Milner, Clark.
Referee: James Child