Bevan French double gives Wigan victory in dazzling derby against Leigh

It is testament to the rise of Leigh Leopards in recent years that their derby with Wigan Warriors has been given an official strapline. But in general election week, perhaps it was only right that the Battle of the Borough went the way of the team wearing red on a pivotal evening for both of these teams.

Leigh and Wigan play in the same postcode. And while the geographical gap has always been close – seven miles to be precise – the Leopards have narrowed the on-field gap since returning to Super League at the beginning of last season. But this was a night that underlined why Wigan are world champions.

This was a wonderful derby. Everything you would expect from two sides playing for local pride, as well as two Super League points. It was tempestuous, bruising and fairly gripping throughout. That Leigh recovered from an 8-0 half-time deficit to set up a thrilling final quarter by narrowing the gap to two is a credit to them.

But then, Wigan do what Wigan have become renowned for under Matt Peet: strike at exactly the right time to swing things decisively in their favour. You will do well to find a better two-minute passage of play all season, with the two tries the Warriors scored of the highest quality.

Ten minutes earlier, Liam Marshall had denied Umyla Hanley a stunning acrobatic finish with a wonderful piece of last-ditch defending. Then, with the gap only two points and things firmly in the balance, Marshall produced a ludicrous finish, diving over the top of Hanley and putting the ball down with one hand while his body was in mid-air.

It is a try we have become used to seeing in recent years as the athleticism of Super League’s stars has somehow got even better, but this was on another level. Two minutes later the imperious Bevan French broke free in midfield and kicked ahead of Matt Moylan, winning a foot race to the line and giving Adam Keighran a simple conversion.

Suddenly, 8-6 was 18-6 and in truth, that was that. The side who hold all four major trophies delivered when it mattered most once again, and this was a night that could go a long way towards them retaining one of those pieces of silverware: the League Leader’s Shield, with St Helens losing on Friday at home to Castleford.

It means Peet’s side are four points clear at the summit with a game in hand and given how relentless this rugby league machine is, they are now odds-on to finish top, even with so many games remaining. “I’m made up with my team tonight, I’m really proud of them,” Peet said. “Leigh are a fantastic team. We had to match their desire and I thought we did exactly that.”

This was a big night for Leigh, too. They have not won at Wigan in the league since 1983 and needed to end that drought here to stay in touch with the top six. Defeat means they could now end the weekend nine points adrift of the playoff places and, while they have improved immeasurably in recent weeks, their slow start to 2024 looks as though it could be decisive.

After an evenly matched opening quarter here, Robbie Mulhern’s sin-bin for the visitors proved significant. It enabled Wigan to go ahead through a Keighran penalty before Jake Wardle’s magnificent break enabled French to score his first of the evening, with Keighran converting to make it 8-0.

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Wigan haven’t quite been at their best since winning the Challenge Cup last month but their defence is what has enabled their form to be maintained. That was on show here but when they were finally breached through Brad Dwyer’s instinctive finish early in the second half, you wondered if the momentum was suddenly with Leigh.

But in the blink of an eye, it all changed when Marshall did the improbable before French took matters into his own hands. The hosts finished with a flourish when Wardle broke again to allow Liam Farrell to score but by then, the result had been decided.

The Guardian

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