A PIECE of opportunistic brilliance from former State of Origin star Matt Bowen helped make sure Castleford Tigers were unable to quickly repeat their Challenge Cup heroics against a resurgent Wigan Warriors.
Daryl Powell’s side had hoped to back up their epic quarter-final win here a week ago by completing a Super League double on their swift return to the DW Stadium last night.
Despite resting a raft of players, including captain Michael Shenton, prop Andy Lynch and star hooker Daryl Clark, they looked competitive and ready to do just that early on.
However, as strange as it sounds, the game turned in the 21st minute following a remarkable intervention by Australian full-back Bowen.
Trailing 6-0 following Dominic Manfredi’s converted opener, Castleford had splintered the Wigan defence when Weller Hauraki slipped Ashley Gibson through with a lovely pass.
The centre duly drew in Bowen before aiming his pass to the supporting stand-in captain Liam Finn for a certain try beneath the hosts’ posts.
However, the ex-North Queensland Cowboys thought otherwise as he not only anticipated the pass but managed to intercept, juggle and then set off on a stunning 80m run to score at the other end.
Powell and assistant Danny Orr could only offer rueful smiles as they watched Matty Smith – in peerless form with his kicking game – make it 12-0 and, when Jordan James added a third try soon after, all momentum was lost and there was no turning back.
It meant, ironically, on the day it was announced Coach of the Year favourite Powell had signed a new deal until 2019, his usually prolific side suffered the biggest defeat of his transformative 13-month reign, Gibson only ensuring they did not remain pointless when he crossed as late as the 73rd minute for Jamie Ellis to convert.
Wigan subsequently drew level with them in third place but the Lancashire club leapfrog Castleford due to a superior points difference.
They battled hard but were clearly no match as a slick Wigan side gained some measure of revenge for having their hold on the Challenge Cup so painfully broken last weekend.
Justin Carney, having gone close earlier following a sensational fend on Anthony Gelling, bustled his way over the Wigan goalline on his return from suspension only to be forced back into touch by three determined defenders.
And, soon after, Wigan proved more ruthless again when captain Sean O’Loughlin cleverly produced a late run from open to blind to create an overlap and deftly put Joe Burgess in for the young winger’s 14th try in just 18 games.
Castleford had already endured problems when Ellis – playing at half-back for another rested regular Marc Sneyd – had to depart in the 18th minute following a sickening clash of heads with team-mate Adam Milner.
That prompted a reshuffle with Luke Dorn moving from full-back and Ben Reynolds coming on for his first game of the year, the 20-year-old who showed some neat touches in only his third Super League match.
However, with Smith’s kicking game doing so much damage and Wigan’s forwards marauding onto some expert promptings from Michael McIlorum and O’Loughlin, it was inevitable their energy levels would drain.
Ellis was able to return, unlike Bowen who had to retire with a hamstring strain not long after his miracle play, but the damage had already been done with Liam Farrell crossing for their fifth try early in the second period following a beautifully fired-out pass from Sam Powell.
McIlorum, the England hooker always so integral to the champions’ gameplan, muscled his way over in typically forceful fashion for another and jaded Castleford only had one real chance in the second half but even then Dixon’s effort was denied as he nudged forward as he collected a high kick in the 66th minute.
Instead, just to rub it in, Burgess did successfully gather another perfectly-executed Smith kick to beat Dixon for his second try, Manfredi getting his brace at the death after Gibson’s reply, and Smith finishing with seven goals.
Wigan Warriors: Bowen; Manfredi, Sarginson, Gelling, Burgess; Powell, Smith; Flower, McIlorum, Taylor, Farrell, Hughes, O’LOughlin. Substitutes: Hampshire, Crosby, James, Sutton.
Castleford Tigers: Dorn; Dixon. Gibson, Carney, Clare; Ellis, Finn; Jewitt, Milner, Huby, Mariano, Hauraki, Wheeldon. Substitutes: Millington, Massey, Holmes, Reynolds.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).