An Oliver Gildart double helped Wigan return to Wembley for the first time since 2013, as they defeated Salford 27-14 at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
The Warriors will be looking to pick up their 20th Challenge Cup when they face Hull FC next month, and put in a determined performance to overcome a Salford side who posed threats all game.
After a nervous start, coughing the ball up in their first set, Wigan twice thought they’d gained an early lead, with two Tom Davies try attempts chalked off. The first was disallowed by the video referee for a foot in touch, before the second was denied for a forward pass.
The Warriors continued to pressure the Salford line, though, and were soon rewarded for their patience. George Williams decided to run it on the last, finding Willie Isa who in turn put Oliver Gildart through a gap to score. Williams converted to make it 6-0 after nine minutes.
The standoff then extended their lead moments later, kicking a penalty goal for holding down on John Bateman, before playing a part in his side’s second try moments later.
His quick pass from 20m out put Willie Isa through a big hole, before the backrower was able to beat Niall Evalds to the line. Williams was again successful with the boot, making it 12-0.
Salford needed a lift, and it came on 24 minutes in the shape of Greg Johnson. With the ball on the Warriors’ line, they spread it wide, with Todd Carney and Niall Evalds both involved to put Johnson over in the corner.
Just two minutes later and the Red Devils found themselves level, with Tyrone McCarthy getting over for a debut try. Johnson made a break from kickoff to put them in perfect field position, before Michael Dobson’s deft kick on the last was grounded by the chasing McCarthy.
With just 10 minutes to go in the half, it looked as if Salford had scored their third in five minutes, as McCarthy chased Carney’s kick into the in-goal yet again. But while video referee Ben Thaler chalked off his effort for a knock-on, interference from Sam Tomkins saw Salford given a penalty and the Wigan fullback sin binned. Dobson knocked over the two points to edge his side two points in front, which they managed to hold onto until halftime.
Both sides came out with a good intensity in the second half, with Niall Evalds epitomising Salford’s desire with a sensational try saving tackle in the 43rd minute.
Wigan looked to have scored a certain try, after Sam Tomkins’ break saw Joe Burgess streak away down the left wing with Evalds in toe. But the Salford fullback refused to give up, tackling Burgess in the process of scoring and forcing a knock on just before the try-line.
Wigan continued to hammer the Salford defence, but Ian Watson’s men were well up to the challenge, extinguishing a number of the Warriors’ opportunities. Fatigue was starting to set in, though, and small bits of ill-discipline started to creep into the Red Devils’ game. Consecutive penalties gave Williams the chance to give his side the lead, but he could only kick one of them to level the scores at 14-14 with just over 20 minutes to go.
It took just four minutes, however, for Wigan to make up for the missed penalty, as they re-took the lead through Michael McIlorum. Williams threw the ball to Burgess on the wing, before the former South Sydney man toed the ball inside to find McIlorum supporting up the middle.
With the rain now pouring down, Wigan started to play it safe, driving the ball closer and closer to the Salford line. Sam Tomkins then stepped up on 67 minutes, slotting a drop-goal to give his side a seven-point cushion and putting serious pressure on Salford with not long to go.
With only nine minutes left, there was still hope for Salford, with Todd Carney’s 40/20 putting them in great field position. To make matters worse for their opponents, Anthony Gelling was also sin binned for trying to slow down the restart, leaving Wigan with 12 men for the remainder of the game. But despite their best efforts, the Wigan defence proved just too strong and they turned the ball over on the last tackle.
The key for Shaun Wane’s men in the final minutes was defence, with a tired but determined Salford side throwing everything at them. But despite being a man down, they stood up to the challenge, even managing to gain a scrum on the Salford line with less than two minutes to go.
Williams took the ball from the scrum, isolating Gareth O’Brien and putting the ball on a plate for Oliver Gildart to score his second. Williams converted to make it 27-14, rounding off a superb Wigan performance.
Wigan: S Tomkins, Davies, Gelling, Gildart, Burgess, Williams, Leuluai, Nuuausala, McIlorum, Sutton, Bateman, Isa, O’laughlin. Interchange: J Tomkins, Clubb, Powell, Tautai.
Salford: Evalds, Johnson, Welham, Sa’u, Vatuvei, Carney, Dobson, Tasi, Tomkins, Kopczak, Murdoch-Masila, Jones, Hauraki. Interchange: O’Brien, Krasniqi, McCarthy, Griffin.
Referee: James Child
Scoring Sequence: 6-0, 8-0, 12-0, 12-6, 12-12, 12-14, 14-14, 20-14, 21-14, 27-14.