Super League Grand Final: Jack Welsby clinches 8-4 win for St Helens over Wigan Warriors
St Helens led 2-0 at half-time in intense Super League Grand Final against rivals Wigan; Warriors then edged in front before Saints drew level at 4-4; dramatic last-minute drop-goal attempt hit post before Jack Welsby went over
By Marc Bazeley at the KCOM Stadium
Last Updated: 28/11/20 8:20am
Jack Welsby was the hero for St Helens as his last-gasp try snatched a stunning 8-4 victory over Wigan Warriors in an intense and absorbing Grand Final.
The defences were on top for the entirety of the first half and the only score during that period came from the boot of Lachlan Coote just as the teams headed into the changing rooms to give Saints a slender two-point lead at the interval.
After an equally close-fought second period, Jake Bibby edged Wigan ahead with an unconverted try before Coote levelled things up again. However, there was drama at the last as Welsby pounced on the ball to score after a drop-goal effort from Tommy Makinson hit the post.
It meant not only did Saints retain the title won last year, but also that they sent the retiring prop James Graham out on a high after he had returned to the club earlier in the season following eight years playing in Australia.
At the same time, however, it meant there was no fairy-tale finish for Wigan captain Sean O'Loughlin, who now hangs his boots up after a glorious 19 years with his hometown club.
The regular-season meeting between these two great rivals at the end of October gave an indication this was going to be a tense, close-fought contest, although perhaps few expected it to produce the lowest-scoring first 40 minutes in Grand Final history.
St Helens were able to exert some pressure on Wigan's line in the opening minutes, but the Warriors held firm to stop both James Roby and Theo Fages just short of the try-line as they probed away at the defence.
Even a deft, one-handed pass from Kevin Naiqama to Tommy Makinson could not unlock the Cherry and Whites as they scrambled to force the winger into touch, with Fiji international Naiqama suffering the same fate on 17 minutes when he got up to take a high kick from Fages.
Having weathered that storm, the Warriors were actually the first team to get over the try-line on 28 minutes - but even then it was not enough as Saints scrambled to prevent Zak Hardaker getting the ball down after he had been released by Oliver Gildart.
Wigan's backs started to come into the game more after this, but the St Helens defence proved just as effective at repelling attacks in their 20-metre zone as their opponents had done earlier in the match.
Just when it looked to be heading scoreless into the break for the first time since the Grand final was inaugurated in 1998, a late hit on Coote after he had kicked the ball on the last tackle resulted in a penalty which the full-back slotted over just after the hooter sounded to put St Helens 2-0 up.
It was a similar story when the second half resumed and although Zeb Taia got over for the defending champions in the 54th minute on the back of them forcing two consecutive goal-line drop-outs, his effort was eventually ruled out when the video referee agreed with Chris Kendall's on-field call that the second row had been narrowly offside from a kick in the build-up.
But as the final entered the last quarter of an hour, a charge-down from a kick by Jonny Lomax saw Wigan regain possession in a great position, and slick handling from Thomas Leuluai and Bevan French led to Bibby going over wide on the right.
Hardaker saw his conversion attempt come back off the posts and Saints drew level in the 72nd minute when back-to-back penalties for high tackles against Wigan gave Coote the opportunity to kick his second penalty of the night, which he duly did from just over 15 metres out.
That set up what would turn out to be arguably the most dramatic finish in the Grand Final's 23-season history and it started when Fages got a long-range drop-goal attempt all wrong followed by giving away a penalty just inside his half in the final two minutes.
Wigan opted to kick at goal, but Hardaker's effort fell short of the target and as it was caught on the full by St Helens it meant they got an opportunity for one final attack.
Having got into Wigan's half, Makinson launched a drop goal attempt on the last play of the game and when it rattled off the posts it seemed as if the match was destined for golden point extra time.
But chaser Welsby was alert to the loose ball as it bounced into the in-goal area for the 19-year-old to dive on, with the video referee giving the thumbs-up to ensure St Helens made it back to back Grand Final wins for the first time in 20 years, and bring a dramatic season to a dramatic conclusion.
It may have started off as a slow burner, but this turned out to be a Grand Final to savour with an unbelievable ending that would have been rejected as too implausible even if a Hollywood scriptwriter had come up with it.
Then again, if ever a season was going to produce such a nail-biting plot twist on the final play of the final match of the campaign then it was this one - and after a year which saw rugby league, like all sports, face so much turmoil due to the covid-19 pandemic there could hardly have been a better finish.
It was a night which saw one of this country's modern greats in James Graham, a man who has performed with distinction for club here and in the NRL and for country throughout the past 18 years, cap his return to the team he began his career at with another Grand Final ring too.
And it was a night where we got a glimpse of the next generation of potential St Helens stars too as teenage hotshot Jack Welsby wrote his name in the club's history books - which is likely to be the first of many memorable moments for him.
It is difficult to pick fault with either teams' respective performances after such a gripping struggle for the full 80 minutes, and whichever side ended up losing was always going to look to one or two moments which could have easily turned the match the other way.
Wigan head coach Adrian Lam spoke in his post-match press conference about how he felt his side were unable to make the most of their chances when they did open up St Helens, particularly on the back of an incredible defensive effort, although he had no regrets about opting to kick at goal from the missed penalty which sparked the move which led to the winning try.
The biggest disappointment is that such an absorbing match and a Grand Final which will surely go down in history as one of the most memorable was unable to be played in front of a crowd at the due to the restrictions in place to combat covid-19.
And, while Graham was bowing out a winner for Saints, it was a sad end to the career of Wigan captain and now club hall of fame member Sean O'Loughlin as he brought the curtain down on a stellar 19 years with his hometown side.
Tweets of the match
Watching this rugby and these lads are quite simply hard as nails! Seriously powerful and talented athletes who can’t half shift!! I’m not very clued up on this sport but I do understand enough to know that it’s fierce and some game! 🔥 #SuperLeagueGrandFinal— Tony Bellew (@TonyBellew) November 27, 2020
👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 @WiganWarriorsRL but....— Johnny Vegas (@JohnnyVegasReal) November 27, 2020
Stuck in London far from home, if you're @Saints1890 you're never alone. What a win, what a win! The bookie's underdog bites back. Tough game, ultimate exame of @SuperLeague skill, passion & dedication...but YEEEEEEEESSSSSS!!! pic.twitter.com/p9BxsjgEFe