Monday, 13 October 2014

Flower Sees Red In Saints Triumph

In what was to be the last Super League Grand Final of the current structure, League Leaders Shield winners St Helens and reigning champions Wigan met in an 80 minute face-off that will go down in history for its negatives rather than positives.

Wigan suffered a pre-match blow with the news that influential hooker Michael McIlorum would not be risked due to an eye injury suffered in the semi-final which meant Sam Powell took his place in the starting 13 and George Williams was named on the bench.

A superb programme of entertainment featuring James performing a set of hits including the memorable 'Sit Down' and the singing of Jerusalem by Laura Wright got the Old Trafford crowd into a buoyant mood ahead what would hopefully be a fantastic 80 minute chase for the right to be First Utility Super League Champions.

St Helens kicked off the game to a roar from the entire crowd and Wigan looked to make an instant impact with their first set which to their joy was extended after a high tackle resulted in a penalty against the Saints.

Wigan pushed on and kicked on the final drive but from there all hell broke loose as despite Dom Crosby claiming the ball, Ben Flower reacted to a forearm hit from Lance Hohaia with a thunderous punch before horrifically delivering a second blow to the Saints halfback who lay flat on the ground. 

A brawl ensued between the sides which Phil Bentham calmed before dismissing the Wigan prop with a red card leaving Wigan with the mighty task of playing 78 minutes with only 12 men and meant the Welshman became the first player to be dismissed in Grand Final history.

St Helens had to replace the injured Hohaia instantly as they looked to punish Wigan's indiscipline and despite being unable to find an end product they got a bit of luck after Matt Bowen knocked on after failing to collect the Saints attacking kick.

Wigan soon regained possession and looked to threaten the Saints defence and despite being a man down, they found space on the right with Anthony Gelling offloading to Josh Charnley who raced over halfway before being caught by the Saints chase. The Warriors continued to mount attacks and in the 15th minute after Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook blocked Dan Sarginson in a tackle, Wigan were awarded a penalty which Matty Smith elected to kick at goal and did so successfully for a 2-0 lead. 

St Helens looked to respond but wasted the efforts of a good passing set by committing a crossing offence before regaining the ball after Anthony Gelling spilled the ball on Wigan's final drive which allowed Adam Swift to race down the field before a mix of fumbles near the touchline saw St Helens benefit from a Wigan knock-on with a scrum which became a penalty after lying on in the tackle from Wigan. 

Saints elected to go for goal with Mark Percival kicking through the posts to level the score at 2-2 but St Helens looked to have gone ahead in the 38th minute when a melee near the Wigan line saw Phil Bentham go to the screen for a possible try among some confusion. After a replay, Ben Thaler deemed that the Saints player had been tackled into touch before offloading meaning a no try decision.

Wigan used the near try scare to their advantage and with just 34 seconds left of the first half, they regained the lead as a superb pass from Blake Green found the arms of Joe Burgess who crossed for a try to the joy of the ecstatic Warriors fans who applauded their charges into the interval despite a missed conversion from Matty Smith at 6-2. 

The second half began with St Helens looking to draw level but it was Wigan who came the closest with Matt Bowen just inches from touching down on the Saints line in the 45th minute but the Warriors fullback made a huge error at the other end which went unpunished thanks to an error from St Helens in the resulting set which regained possession for the Warriors.

However, Eddy Pettybourne knocked on in his own half and Saints took advantage with Sia Soliola collecting a pass from James Roby to cross for a try which was awarded after a video review as he had scored despite huge pressure from the Wigan defenders. Mark Percival converted and St Helens led 8-6.

Wigan came achingly close to reducing the deficit just minutes later as a stunning run from Liam Farrell put the Warriors in a great position but from the next drive, Matt Bowen's failed offload near the try line saw the move break down. 

Wigan had another good chance just after the hour mark when a clever dash from Joe Burgess saw them gain a penalty which Matty Smith missed poorly and failed to even kick dead which gave Saints possession. St Helens' attacking soon paid off as a high kick from Paul Wellens found the grasp of Tommy Makinson who touched down near the posts giving Mark Percival a good angle to convert which saw the lead extended to 14-6.

A short kick-off from the Warriors paid off and they attacked the Saints line but wasted the chance to score when Anthony Gelling lost the ball giving Saints possession. Wigan made two late interchanges with Sam Powell and Tony Clubb replaced by George Williams and Eddy Pettybourne and one last charge saw Sia Soliola collect the ball in-goal subsequent to a challenge from John Bateman which proved to be the last meaningful action.

The final hooter bellowed and St Helens celebrated a first Super League title in eight years since their 2006 triumph while Wigan were left to reflect on a battling performance with 12 men for 78 minutes where they were still in the game until the last ten minutes but just fell short.

The game should be remembered for Saints ending a run of five successive Grand Final defeats but will ultimately be thought of as the Grand Final where Ben Flower saw red in horrific circumstances.

A bad end to what has been a good season for Wigan despite losing their grasp on the trophies won in 2013, finishing second in the regular season and Grand Final coupled with a harrowing World Club Challenge will be a good learning curve for a side with a good future ahead.