Challenge Cup semi-final weekend holds a special place in most rugby supporters hearts. But in this strangest of years those fans were settling down in their armchairs for a brace of matches from a rain drenched Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens with Wigan Warriors versus Leeds Rhinos the first to take the stage.
Both sides suffered heavy defeats in midweek as they fielded weakened sides in Super League while resting their key players for this crucial game. The sides sit in third and fourth in the league table and despite the Warriors being clear favourites, thanks to beating the Rhinos in their last five encounters, most neutrals hoped that it would be a closely matched encounter.
A place at Wembley on the afternoon of the 17th October was the big prize on offer.
There was nothing to choose between the two sides in the opening exchanges. On nine minutes the Rhinos started a set inside the Warriors ten but the Wigan defence held strong and denied Leeds an opener.
But it was Leeds who scored first after Mikolaj Oledzki had the ball stolen thirty from the sticks and Rhys Martin kicked the penalty goal on fourteen.
A brilliant Luke Gale 40-20 put Leeds ten from the line and two plays in Martin seemed surprised to get an inside pass but made the most of it, stepping off the right foot to slide over. Martin converted his own try, the Rhinos 8-0 ahead and deservedly so.
A high tackle from an out of sorts Sean O’Loughlin gifted Leeds another penalty, Martin happy to add another two to his personal tally. The Rhinos were dominant, Wigan simply couldn’t get the ball in the Leeds half.
On thirty-three a Gale kick to the corner was tapped back by Liam Sutcliffe into the hands of Richie Myler who passed to Ash Handley, the winger sliding over for a four pointer. Martin added the conversion, his hardest of the game, for 16-0.
Alex Mellor came close on thirty-seven as he went to ground a Gale grubber with Tommy Leuluai touching the ball dead with his fingertips. But within a minute the Rhinos moved the ball right on the last tackle, Konrad Hurrell drawing the last defender and passing out to Tom Briscoe to slide over unopposed. Martin was unable to add the conversion, Leeds 20-0 up at the interval.
Wigan spurned a chance to get points early in the half when Leuluai knocked on. Back to back penalties on fifty-six gifted the Warriors field position but yet another handling error handed possession back to Leeds.
On sixty-six Handley went over the line but was unable to get the ball on the ground after a great Brad Dwyer break from acting half back. A minute later Handley did get his second try, taking a Sutcliffe offload on the line and bouncing off the Warriors defenders to score. Martin couldn’t add the extras but Wigan needed five tries with just ten minutes remaining.
Wigan stole the ball on seventy-one, Matt Prior being stripped, Martin kicked the goal for 26-0 to cap a totally dominant Rhinos performance.
Wigan scored a consolation try on seventy-five, their first points in over one hundred and sixty minutes, when Harry Smith collected a loose Leeds pass close to his own line and going ninety metres to score. Zak Hardaker added the goal for 6-26.
Dom Manfredi was the provider for Hardaker to get Wigan’s second on seventy-seven with the Warriors centre adding the two to his try.
The Rhinos dominated the game, wind at their backs and wind in their faces, to secure their place in the Challenge Cup Final. The Leeds forwards bossed the centre of the field and excellent kicking games from Gale and Lui caused all the necessary mischief in the Wigan defence. Wigan will be devastated at this loss and their cup exit.
Wigan Warriors: French, Burgess, Bibby, Hardaker (T, 2G), Manfredi, Hastings, Leuluai, Havard, Powell, Partington, Farrell, Isa, O’Loughlin. Subs: Bullock, Greenwood, Shorrocks, Smith (T).
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Handley (2T), Hurrell, Sutcliffe L, Briscoe T (T), Lui, Gale, Seumanufagai, Leeming, Oledzki, Mellor, Martin (T, 5G), Prior. Subs: Holroyd, Dwyer, Smith, Donaldson.
Referees: Ben Thaler.
Ground: Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens.