WIGAN will face Hull FC at Wembley after edging Salford Red Devils 27-14 in the Challenge Cup semi-final at the Halliwell-Jones Stadium.
Sam Tomkins was the star of the show, producing his best performance since his return from injury – despite missing ten minutes in the sin bin – in a game that was action-packed before the break and brutally physical in the closing stages. McIlorum was another standout, as nuggety in defence and scheming in attack as ever.
Todd Carney ran the show for Salford, kicking two 40/20s and marshalling his team around the field, but was felled by a late hit from Willie Isa that saw the Wigan man on report and the Aussie halfback in the concussion bin. When his team needed a score, Carney could play no role.
The Red Devils’ other high-profile import, Manu Vatuvei, enjoyed a typically inconsistent beginning to life in the UK, coughing up several errors alongside his trademark powerful carries.
The tone was clear from the first tackle. Nua’asala fielded the kickoff and charged at the Salford line, whereupon his welcoming committee carried him back to within a yard of where he started.
Wigan weathered the storm and might have scored twice along the right – Tom Davies was once in touch, a second time robbed by a forward pass – before they opened the scoring.
Oliver Gildart strolled through on the back of a George Williams kick, and Willie Isa would exploit the same gap moments later to double the lead, Williams having added a penalty too. Salford were rocking.
Manu Vatuvei, targeted by Williams and Tommy Leuluai throughout, had been throwing up rocks, but when he struck a diamond, Salford were back in business. The Beast took a carry that knocked John Bateman back and on the next play, Wigan conceded a penalty. The field position would not be relinquish for ten minutes, by which point Salford were two points and a man ahead.
Greg Johnson would be the first to score, before creating the second with a huge break that resulted in Tyrone McCarthy beating teammate Junior Sa’u and Tommy Leuluai to a kick.
He nearly repeated the trick moments later, only for the video ref to rule that he was impeded by Sam Tomkins. The try was saved, but the price was a penalty goal and a ten minute sit down for the Wigan fullback.
Tomkins would make a decisive contribution right after the restart. He stepped through the Salford line and waltzed clear, before handing the ball onto Joe Burgess.
The Wigan winger isn’t often caught, but Niall Evalds made up the ground and produced one of the tackles of the season. After an age, Ben Thaler in the video booth made the call and denied Wigan the lead.
It would take a further 15 minutes of attrition, defensive effort and dithering attack before the scoreboard operator was bothered again. A slender George Williams penalty seemed scant reward for a brutal softening up period. He would have a shot at another, too, but Wigan’s famed goal-kicking deficiencies struck again.
If anyone had doubted that Salford would be able to cope with this full strength Wigan side, they were wrong; if anyone had thought that Wigan would underestimate Salford, they were in no doubt now that they hadn’t. As the game entered it’s final quarter, the heavens opened.
The rain would have an instant effect. Joe Burgess slid off the island. Michael Dobson, previously impeccable with the boot, saw his grubber slide dead behind.
Having been deposited into touch on his last carry, Burgess knew better next time, kicking inside, whereupon Michael McIlorum defied the conditions to gather from his bootlaces and return the lead to Wigan.
On the next visit to the Salford end, Sam Tomkins extended the Wigan lead to seven points. It would prove vital. After Todd Carney kicked a second 40/20 of the afternoon, Gelling headered the ball away – a clear professional foul that saw his team left with 12 men for the conclusion.
Salford huffed and puffed, but their fatigue was too much. Vatuvei’s final contribution was another knock on. Seconds later, Oliver Gildart would complete the scoring that he started to send Wigan on to a repeat of their last win, 2013 and arguably the greatest final ever, 1985. Hull will be waiting.