Well, that was certainly an eventful start. The points were Wigan’s, the praise perhaps Warrington’s but in terms of setting a benchmark for the next eight months the standard has been set in some style.
With everything that has happened in the game since St Helens lifted the Super League title at Old Trafford last October, the onus was on these two sides to start the season with a bang. They didn’t disappoint.
The rugby league landscape has changed drastically in recent months, with Sonny Bill Williams and – more controversially – Israel Folau arriving in Super League, not to mention Prince Harry’s well-publicised involvement with the World Cup draw. Despite all that exciting evolution, one thing seemingly never changes: Wigan versus Warrington is always box-office.
This latest instalment included numerous high-profile debuts, a red card that could lead to Warrington’s captain having an extended pre‑season and the usual smorgasbord of hustle, bustle and sublime skill.
When Chris Hill was dismissed after 22 minutes following a horrendous tackle on Sam Powell, it was easy to fear the worst for Warrington, but they rallied to concede only one try without him.
“I can’t stand losing, I hate it, but you can accept a loss after that effort,” Warrington’s coach, Steve Price, said. “There’s a team there for sure.”
The game undoubtedly swung on Hill’s red card. Warrington had forged an early eight-point lead thanks to Ben Murdoch-Masila’s try and two goals from Stefan Ratchford, but the tide soon turned in Wigan’s favour.
Warrington’s defensive grit was at its best so Wigan needed someone to step up. How grateful they were, therefore, for the exploits of Bevan French. Adrian Lam, his coach, has a dilemma that is likely to resolve itself as the season rolls on, concerning whether to play French at full-back or half-back.
Given how he impressed in both roles over the course of the evening, his quandary has not been made any easier. The Australian’s solo try in the first-half, which made it 8-6, was of the highest order, as was his pass for Liam Marshall’s decisive try.
“He had an impact on the game at different times,” Lam said. “He’s an exciting player who will give us plenty.”
Shortly after French’s moment of magic, the pivotal moment arrived on 22 minutes. With Powell seemingly destined to touch down, he was taken out in the act of scoring by Hill’s wild high challenge.
Powell needed lengthy medical assistance and was taken from the field on a stretcher. Chris Kendall had no choice but to dismiss Hill and with the penalty try putting Wigan 12-8 ahead Warrington looked in deep trouble. “We made harder work of it from there,” Lam said.
While he was right, Warrington’s defensive efforts were just as pivotal as Wigan’s profligacy. Time and time again they defied Wigan’s numerical advantage, even managing to add another penalty from Ratchford before half-time to narrow the gap to two.
Those who thought half-time would re-energise Wigan were mistaken as it was the Wolves who looked the more threatening.
When Mike Cooper was sent to the sin-bin with 15 minutes remaining to reduce Warrington to 11 men, though, the pressure finally told. French’s cut-out pass found Marshall unmarked and Wigan had daylight for the first time.
But Warrington, much to their credit, would not give in. The prospect of golden point extra time was never out of the equation until the final seconds, by which time Wigan were scrambling to keep the flamboyant, entertaining Wolves at bay.
Wigan French; Marshall, Hardaker, Bibby, J Burgess; Hastings, Leuluai; Partington, Powell, G Burgess, Isa, Farrell, O’Loughlin Interchange Byrne, Clubb, Havard, Smithies
Tries French, penalty, Marshall Goals Hardaker 2 Warrington Ashton; Lineham, Gelling, King, Charnley; Austin, Ratchford; Hill, D Clark, Cooper, Currie, Murdoch-Masila, J Clark Interchange Philbin, Akauola, Walker, Burrell
Tries Murdoch-Masila, Goals Ratchford 3
Referee C Kendall. Att 15,040