Yates’ verdict: Derby not for the faint-hearted

Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook tackles Wigan's Matty Bowen
Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook tackles Wigan's Matty Bowen

The St Helens Reporter’s rugby league writer John Yates gives his verdict on Saints stunning over Wigan.

Pure theatre is the only way to described an intoxicating derby encounter which was poised on a knife edge until the final act of the night.

Shuddering tackling and commitment almost beyond the call of duty demonstrated the importance of victory to the players in this battle - and that’s the only word to use - for local bragging rights.

It may not have been a classic from a purist’s point of view but the way both sides slugged it out toe-to-toe for supremacy was compulsive viewing for 20,000 transfixed supporters, and reflected in the stats which later revealed St Helens completed 308 tackles and Wigan 309.

Saints deserved the points, which ensured they retained their top of the table spot in the First Utility Super League, but they had to work like Trojans, particularly in defence, to repel a Wigan side still smarting from the previous weekend’s defeat at Wakefield.

They also had to overcome the 22nd minute body blow of losing playmaker Luke Walsh with a back injury when the scores were level at 4-4 but made light work of the problem - the versatile Jon Wilkin once more moving from the second row into the midfield engine room.

The three quarter line was just as effective at times but without question it was the Saints’ forwards who stole the limelight, out-muscling their neighbours in what at times developed into an arm wrestle.

No one stamped his authority on the game more than 20st prop Mose Masoe who emerged from the substitutes’ bench to produce his most compelling and complete performance of the season and striking fear into the Wigan ranks via his powerful runs - sometimes with two or three defenders hanging on to his shirt tail.

The same kind of accolade could also be showered on fellow substitute Luke Thompson - a boy proving to be a man among some of the biggest hitters in the sport.

The 19-year-old was an inspirational figure, especially in the second half when both teams were at full throttle and hoping to blow each other away.

Neither could you overlook the shift put in by 18-year-old prop Greg Richard who more than justified coach Nathan Brown’s calculated gamble to include him in the starting 13.

It was also a night no one took a backward but it was Wigan who drew first blood after eight minutes when left winger Joe Burgess pounced on Sam Powell’s inch-perfect kick to score in the left-hand corner.

The table-topper to restore parity midway through the first half when second rower Mark Flanagan’s audacious one-handed flick pass allowed top tryscoring winger Tommy Makinson to score.

Wigan came close to regaining the lead, only for Burgess to be bundled into touch by the combined efforts of Willier Manu and skipper Paul Wellens.

But it didn’t take Nathan Brown’s boys too long to push their noses in front.

Wilkin, whose astute kicking, had already caused Wigan one or two problems, delivered another teasing crossfield up and under and when the hosts failed to gather the ball Wellens was on hand to collect Thompson’s quick-fire off-load to score.

Deservedly ahead 8-4, Saints looked on the point of beating their arch-rival into submission but out of the blue the Cherry and Whites drew level in the 58th minute when full back Matty Bowen’s cut out pass sent winger Josh Charnley storming over.

It led to Saints moving in front for a second time after 63 minutes thanks to a penalty from centre Mark Percival awarded for a high tackle and a couple of minutes later turned the screw further.

Mighty Masoe, who seconds earlier had been instrumental in earning Saints a penalty, carved out an opening down the right where Makinson took Jordan Turner’s pass, sped past one defender and jinked inside two more and crossed the whitewash.

Percival’s touchline kick was coolness personified and at 16-8 in front and the clock ticking down rapidly to the final hooter Saints looked virtually home and dry.

But to their credit the Warriors produced a grandstand finale, Charnley putting the cat among the pigeons by claiming his second try after 78 minutes to cut the deficit to only four points.

A dream comeback suddenly became a distinct possibility and it was still on the cards less han 20 seconds from the end until Percival wrapped up Anthony Gelling in what proved to be the last tackle of the match.