Six years ago Liam Marshall, who has now written himself into Wigan folklore, faced an uncertain future. The winger, by his own admission, was hardly pulling up trees in Wigan’s junior setup and the club’s coaching staff were unsure he would make it professionally. How fitting, therefore, that the man who fought his corner to keep him at the club lifted the Challenge Cup as his head coach.
Matty Peet, who was Marshall’s academy coach back then, had promised he would not consider himself a true Wigan head coach until he won a major trophy. Barely six months on from becoming coach of his home town club, he has ticked that box in the most dramatic way.
With three minutes to go here, Wigan seemed beaten. Two points behind, they were desperately hurling the ball looking for an opening that was not there.
But these games are about clutch moments and how Harry Smith and Marshall delivered. Smith feigned one way, ran the other and produced a pinpoint kick that Marshall raced on to. His pace ensured the rest was a mere formality and, just as he did in the semi-final against St Helens, he secured victory for his side.
For a record-extending 20th time, the Challenge Cup is in the possession of rugby league’s most famous club.
“It was all about a moment and if I could have picked anyone in that moment, I would have picked Liam Marshall,” Peet said. “I’m just delighted. I’m so happy for everyone. There’s so much character in this group.”
The reaction from Huddersfield as Marshall raced in for the winning try told their side of the story. They gave everything in a quest to win their first major trophy for 69 years, but were undone by Marshall’s late try.
They could look back on the four missed goals from Tui Lolohea as crucial, as well as the loss of their prop Chris Hill in the opening quarter to injury. But they still battled back to lead heading into the final moments before having their hearts broken once again.
“Wigan don’t go away, especially in a game like this,” the beaten coach, Ian Watson, said. “But this is the start for us, we’ve got to build from here and use this as fuel going forward. The best team lost the final.”
Huddersfield led for large periods of an engrossing final, including for most of the first half. A penalty from Lolohea put them ahead in the early stages but that was the only goal he would kick.
He was unable to convert Ricky Leutele’s try and, shortly after Hill went off, Wigan responded when Morgan Smithies combined with Smith to send the latter across. Smith converted to make it 6-6.
But Huddersfield responded well, and the outstanding Chris McQueen, who won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, put the Giants back in front on the stroke of half-time to give them a slender four-point advantage at the interval.
However, that lead was erased after the restart when Bevan French and Jai Field linked up to free Field for a wonderful try. Smith’s conversion put the Warriors ahead for the first time.
Lolohea missed a long-range penalty to level the scores but again Huddersfield hit back in impressive fashion. They weathered the Wigan storm and when two of their longest-serving players, Leroy Cudjoe and Jermaine McGillvary, linked up to send McGillvary across, it felt like a poetic ending to Huddersfield’s long wait for a major trophy.
That was, however, until Smith’s brilliant kick was collected by Marshall who sent the Wigan support into delirium.
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Peet is a keen proponent of psychology and, instead of training on the pitch the day before the final, he had his squad practise their kick-off positions and walking out of the tunnel inside an empty stadium.
You could argue that worked given the final outcome but really there is no substitute for talent. Marshall, the latest in a long line of Wigan wingers to solidify his place in the club’s prestigious Challenge Cup history, certainly proved that.