Wigan edge out Penrith to win their fifth World Club Challenge

<span>Jake Wardle touches down the decisive try.</span><span>Photograph: Lewis Storey/Getty Images</span>
Jake Wardle touches down the decisive try.Photograph: Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Are the tectonic plates in club rugby league shifting? Is Super League finally catching up with the NRL? The truthful answer is: who knows? And right now, try asking anyone associated with Wigan Warriors if they even care. All that matters to this town where rugby league means more than almost everything else is that once again, they are the kings of the club game.

The talk all week had been of how this group of players, who have now won every trophy there is to win since Matt Peet took charge little over two years ago, had their own chance to follow in the footsteps of legends who have won this title on four occasions in the past for Wigan.

Players such as Denis Betts, Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards who have won this game for Wigan in the past. Now, players like Jai Field, Bevan French and Harry Smith join that illustrious list.

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It was a game not without controversy; the try that settled the game, scored by Jake Wardle, certainly had its suspicions surrounding it. But in contests like these against the mighty Penrith Panthers, who have won the last three NRL titles, perhaps you need a little bit of luck. That aside, this was one of the most enthralling, engrossing and ultimately incredible games of rugby league you are likely to see.

With Super League plagued by controversy over its new tackle laws, the sport needed a tonic like this; two world-class sides going toe-to-toe in a match decided by fine margins. For those of a Wigan Warriors persuasion, they will be ecstatic that they ended up on the right side of those calls inside a packed-out DW Stadium, which provided a magnificent backdrop. This was, in truth, everything which can be brilliant about this sport.

“It was a fantastic game between two outstanding teams – you could see all the way through what a fantastic team Penrith are,” the victorious head coach, Peet, said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my players.”

This is a boost for Super League too – with this the first time the competition has won back-to-back World Club Challenges since 2007 and 2008; the gap between the best English sides and the NRL is closing. “I thought they played well in terms of field position and creating chances, we couldn’t execute as well as they did,” Penrith’s beaten coach, Ivan Cleary, reflected post-match.

In a seesaw contest the lead changed hands five times on the night, with Wigan breaking the deadlock courtesy of Abbas Miski’s try. Penrith, under the guidance of the world’s best player in Nathan Cleary, hit back when Miski spilled a Cleary bomb and he was on hand to finish under the posts and kick the Panthers into a 6-4 lead. The Warriors then responded magnificently as a fantastic team move was finished by Kruise Leeming to put the hosts back ahead, Harry Smith’s conversion making it 10-6.

But just as Wigan looked likely to go in at half-time ahead, Penrith struck a huge blow when Dylan Edwards barged over two Warriors defenders to give Cleary a simple conversion and put the NRL champions ahead by two. Perhaps unsurprisingly in such a high-quality game, points were at a premium in the second half: so much so that the only try that was scored came with more than a touch of controversy.

Field’s clever kick was collected by Wardle, who appeared to be short of the line as he was tackled. But the referee, Liam Moore, referred the decision to the video referee with the belief it was a try: and that on-field call was crucial in the try being awarded. Penrith, however, weren’t done by any stretch despite going behind once again.

The final moments were filled with drama. Field produced a world-class tackle to deny Taylan May as he looked set to level the scores and with the very last play of the game, Field was on hand again to prevent May from grounding the ball and forcing extra time at the very least. The referral to the video referee for that moment must have felt like a lifetime for Peet, his players and all those inside the stadium. The euphoria which erupted when the decision emerged as no try underlined what this night, and this trophy, means to this town.