The Super League season is barely a fortnight old and there are already some familiar trends developing. Throughout large periods of 2020 Wigan Warriors were far from their best, yet in the end they found themselves top of the table and in the Grand Final. History has proved that when the chips are down, they know how to get the job done.
How that was evident again here. After 50 minutes of a pulsating, defence-dominated contest – a game that Mose Masoe would have doubtless enjoyed to open the round of fixtures dedicated to the prop as he recovers from his career‑ending spinal injury – this was in the balance.
Wakefield had dominated large periods of a back-and-forth first half and may have even considered themselves unfortunate to go in at the break level. But after the break, as the crunch period of the game approached, only one side clicked into gear, and it was the team who have a time-honoured tradition of doing so.
In 10 second-half minutes the game was taken away from Wakefield in ruthless fashion, and one man was at the heart of it. Zak Hardaker has made no secret of his desire to play full-back for club as well as country in this year’s World Cup, and with Wigan’s first-choice Bevan French injured this was an opportunity for him to stake his claim to Adrian Lam.
He has certainly done that in the opening fortnight. Last week he was impressive as Wigan fought back from 18-0 down to defeat Leigh, and it was Hardaker’s influence which was telling here in guiding the Warriors to back-to-back wins to start the new Super League season.
“I loved that,” Lam, the Wigan coach, said. “I thought it was tough in the first half but we clicked in the second half and I’m delighted for the boys.”
In contrast, this was a painfully familiar story for Chris Chester and Wakefield. They have competed against the competition’s bigger sides so often in the past before falling away at the crucial junctures, and the manner in which they lost here will have been disappointing, especially after an encouraging display in vain against Leeds Rhinos last week.
Many expect Trinity to be battling at the wrong end of the Super League table again in 2021, and the manner of this defeat does little to dissuade that argument. The result will be doubly frustrating given the way Wakefield battled impressively throughout the first half. They took a deserved lead when David Fifita scored a wonderful solo try his fellow prop Masoe would have been proud of, swatting off four Wigan defenders to touch down.
But that was where Wakefield’s scoring for the evening ended, and within five minutes Wigan were level when Oliver Partington crashed over from close-range to make it 6-6. But if the first half was a tense, evenly balanced affair, the second was dramatically different as the Warriors – and the winger Jake Bibby – ran rampant.
Seven minutes after half-time Bibby claimed his first try with a wonderful finish in the corner, before Hardaker finished a half-break from Liam Farrell to race away for a try of his own. He converted both, as he did with Bibby’s second three minutes later, following a marvellous piece of buildup play which involved Hardaker, before John Bateman added to the scorers.
Leading 30-6, it was evident Wigan could afford to ease up against a Wakefield side whose challenge had quickly faded. But there was still time for one more try, as Hardaker’s cross-field kick was claimed by Bibby for his hat-trick. It put the seal on a verdict we perhaps already knew: Wigan are once again one of the sides to beat in 2021.
Wigan Hardaker; Bibby, Isa, Farrell, Hanley; Hastings, Leuluai; Bullock, Powell, Singleton, Smithies, Bateman, Partington. Interchange Havard, Smith, Byrne, Shorrocks. Tries Partington, Bibby 3, Hardaker, Bateman. Goals Hardaker 5.
Wakefield Hampshire; Senior, Lyne, Tupou, Johnstone; Miller, Lino; Fifita, Crowther, Arona, Ashurst, Pitts, Westerman. Interchange J Wood, Green, Tanginoa, Batchelor. Try Fifita. Goal Lino. Referee S Mikalauskas