HAVING ensured Super League survival before the end of the regular season, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats will be able to look back on 2016 as a year of progress. But in their biggest game so far, the gulf in class was obvious.
Facing Warrington Wolves, tournament winners in 2009, 2010 and 2012, in a Challenge Cup semi-final is a tall order at the best of times and a lengthy injury list made the scale of Wakefield’s task even greater.
They were without eight players who would probably have featured if fit, including three of their first-choice front-rows. Coach Chris Chester was forced to include several players who clearly were not at 100 per cent and one of his substitutes, young forward Jordan Crowther, spent time on loan at League One side York City Knights earlier in the campaign.
To deny Warrington a Wembley meeting with Hull, Wakefield needed to be at the very top of the game and hope their opponents fell well short. Neither happened.
Despite going ahead early on, Wakefield could not cope with Warrington’s pace out wide or power through the middle. Trinity were on the back foot for most of the contest and Warrington ruthlessly punished their handling errors and defensive lapses.
A year ago, Chester masterminded a shock victory for Hull KR over Warrington at the same stage of the competition.
Complacency played a part in Warrington’s downfall that day, but they learned their lesson and were on the ball from the start.
An early try did give Wakefield confidence. After just four minutes, Craig Hall crossed untouched from Jacob Miller’s long pass and Liam Finn landed a magnificent touchline goal.
But Wakefield were unable to apply pressure after that. The game’s first five penalties went to Warrington and those, plus errors when Wakefield did get the ball, meant it was one-way traffic.
Other than Hall’s try, Wakefield had only one real opportunity before the interval. On the half-hour, Scott Moore’s well-timed pass sent Jason Walton racing into open space. He had support on either side, but held on to the ball too long before passing.
It was 18-6 at that stage and a converted try may have lifted Wakefield and given Warrington some anxious moments. Instead, the Cheshire side finished the half well on top.
Trinity led until the 15th minute when Jack Hughes burst over to open Warrington’s account, Kurt Gidley kicking the first of his six conversions. The Australian stand-off added a penalty goal soon afterwards, which showed Wakefield great respect.
By half-time, Warrington had one foot on Wembley Way, leading 24-6, after further tries by Daryl Clark, Rhys Evans and Gidley.
Clark, a Challenge Cup runner-up with Castleford Tigers two years ago, was a thorn in Wakefield’s side and Warrington’s ability to switch between him and Brad Dwyer at hooker has been a lethal weapon this season.
He was, however, fortunate to escape with only a ticking off and a penalty against him after a shoulder charge on Miller during a rare Wakefield attack late in the first half.
Ryan Atkins, playing against his former club, was involved in the back-to-back tries at the start of the second period which ensured there would be no fightback.
Matty Russell had a touchdown ruled out by video referee Phil Bentham before Atkins’s wonderful offload sent Chris Sandow over.
In the next set, Russell raced clear from Atkins’ pass and Stefan Ratchford was in support to finish a classy move.
Australian forward David Fifita, playing in only his seventh game for Wakefield, was sin-binned for a high tackle on Sandow and Warrington ran in two tries against the 12 men, Ben Currie and Toby King crossing. Ben Westwood brought up the half-century after numerical parity was restored.
Warrington coach Tony Smith was able to rest both Gidley and Sandow after King’s try, which illustrated the difference in the sides’ resources. Ratchford took over kicking duties and converted Westwood’s try.
Outclassed as they were, Wakefield did not lack spirit and managed to apply some pressure in the closing stages.
Nineteen-year-old full-back Max Jowitt is a player with huge potential and he capped his first semi-final appearance with a try following Hall’s break.
Soon after that Hall touched down from his own kick, but video referee Bentham ruled a double movement.
Warrington’s first nine tries came from different scorers, but Toby King broke the sequence with his second in the final minute.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: Jowitt, Jones-Bishop, Lyne, Arundel, Hall, Miller, Finn, Scruton, Moore, Fifita, Walton, A Tupou, Sio. Substitutes: Crowther, Kirmond, Arona, Yates.
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford, Russell, T King, Atkins, Evans, Gidley, Sandow, Hill, Clark, Sims, Currie, Hughes, Westerman. Substitutes: G King, Dwyer, Westwood, Bailey.
Referee: G Hewer (Whitehaven).