Jack Welsby’s incredible try after the full-time hooter had sounded secured back-to-back Super League titles for St Helens after the most dramatic, entertaining and climactic Grand Final in the event’s history.
For well over an hour, neither side were able to breach the other’s try-line, until Jake Bibby looked to have put Wigan on course for a sixth title. However, having taken a 2-0 lead at half-time thanks to a Lachlan Coote penalty, the full-back levelled the scores with a second penalty minutes after Zak Hardaker’s conversion hit the posts.
Hardaker then missed a penalty with seconds remaining, before Tommy Makinson’s drop goal on the hooter hit the post and bounced back into the field of play, allowing Welsby to catch Wigan full-back Bevan French cold and touch down to clinch victory in arguably the most incredible way the competition has ever witnessed.
Those expecting the usual blood and thunder Wigan and St Helens so often provide in the derby would not have been disappointed from the off. Lovers of aggressive defending would have been pleased too, with a brutal opening half-hour yielding no points, but plenty of bone-crunching tackles: not least the one on James Graham from Tommy Leuluai inside the opening minutes, which left the flame-haired forward prone and needing treatment.
Graham recovered, as did St Helens, who quickly settled into a period of sustained pressure on the Wigan line. Their chief target was Wigan’s Joe Burgess, who was routinely bombarded by aerial kicks, but he and his centre, Oliver Gildart, stood up to them all commendably. The Warriors’ overall defence was just as impressive, replying the Saints time and time again.
And when Wigan ventured forward with their first forays towards the St Helens line, they came desperately close to breaking the deadlock on two occasions. First, a break from Burgess was pulled back when Jackson Hastings was obstructed in the build-up, with the Warriors upset Burgess was not allowed to carry on to the line, with a fair chance of scoring ahead of him.
Burgess was withdrawn shortly after for a concussion assessment following another bruising collision, this time coming off worse when clashing with his own teammate, Willie Isa. Zak Hardaker was switched to the left wing to replace Burgess, and he looked certain to score after being freed by Gildart, before five St Helens defenders scrambled to deny him.
The quality from both sides was, as you would expect from a Grand Final, magnificent.
Morgan Smithies’ late hit on Lachlan Coote gave the St Helens full-back the chance to open the scoring from the kicking tee on the stroke of half-time. He duly obliged: but for the first time in Grand Final history, the first half had passed by without a single try being scored.
Would the interval lead to a drop-off in quality from either side? Not a chance. The third quarter continued where the previous two had left off, with neither side relenting defensively – though just like in the first half, it was the Saints who had the more sustained spell of pressure on the opposition’s line.
That pressure looked as though it had yielded the opening try with the hour mark approaching, and in a game of fine margins, it was a marginal call which ruled Zeb Taia to be offside as he collected a Lomax kick and touched down, leaving the Warriors just two behind going into the final quarter, with the final still firmly in the balance.
But eventually, one error was always going to be decisive. When Theo Fages spilled a loose ball, the pressure turned back on St Helens: and this time, Bevan French’s pass to Jake Bibby was inch-perfect, sending the winger across in the corner. But with Zak Hardaker hitting the stanchion with the conversion, the drama was nowhere near over.
Eight minutes later, Hastings caught Fages high, affording Coote the simplest of conversions to make it 4-4. But Wigan returned with vigour, again threatening the St Helens line as attention turned to which side could snatch victory with a late drop goal. However, when Fages hooked his attempt, Hardaker then missed another penalty to leave it level.
But the greatest drama was to come. Makinson’s dramatic drop goal attempt bounced off the uprights but French, who has been near-faultless for Wigan all season long, was caught off-guard – and Welsby reacted quickest to touch down as the ball bounced back from the posts and secure successive titles for the Saints. You will never see a finish like this again.