For the second instalment of our trip down memory lane, we return to Widnes to look back at a less happy semi-final memory and our 30-18 loss to Wigan in 2004.
The 2004 season was a highly anticipated one for the Wire. Having been turned from relegation escapees to breaking into the playoffs within the space of 12 months under club legend Paul Cullen – and said farewell to the beloved but decrepit Wilderspool – we moved into our shiny new stadium on the site of the former Tetley Walkers brewery full of genuine optimism.
As was customary for the period, it turned out to be another false dawn, as we missed out on the playoffs. The previous season’s star man, Graham Appo, returned from the off-season break about five stone heavier (who will ever forget Mark Hilton’s “big brown hamster” comment on the end of season DVD?) and the squad was still carrying too much dead wood to seriously challenge for honours in all honesty. The likes of Gary Hulse, Ian Sibbit and Warren Stevens were still knocking about that season. Ben Westwood had yet to be converted to the all-action enforcer of the pack that we know and love and the fact that he was actually on the wing for this game gives an indication of where we were.
That said, Wire went to the Pie Dome the week before the semi-final clash and gave a good account of themselves despite missing a few through injury, including talisman Lee Briers, who returned in time for the cup game.
Sadly for us, Wigan had a few key players missing when we met in the league that returned for the semi and the difference in class between the two teams at that point was evident.
Australian flyer Brett Dallas opened the scoring for the Cherry and Whites after a Mike Forshaw offload found the floor and the man the Wiganers nicknamed ‘King of the Wing’ scooped on the loose ball to race home from halfway. The sickener was that had Forshaw’s offload been caught – and it wasn’t a bad pass at all – then Wire had a three-on-one overlap on the outside.
Although we had much of the ball in the first half, we just couldn’t find a solid breakthrough and another stroke of good fortune saw Wigan extend their lead ten minutes later. Lee Briers, sporting a ridiculous blonde streak in his hair that year, chipped over the Wigan line beautifully, but the bounce of the ball took it just beyond his grasp and Kris Radlinski it from his fingertips and scored another long-range try.
It could, would, should have been 12-0 to Wire but we found ourselves 12-0 down and chasing the game after only a quarter of the match.
The only points we managed to get on the board before the break came from a Lee Briers penalty goal, but we crossed for a try not long after the restart when Darren Burns pounced on a rare Wigan mistake in their own half and fed Ben Westwood who showed great strength to fend off a defender and dive over in the corner, giving the massed ranks of Wire fans hope that it was game on.
It wasn’t, though, as Wigan capitalised from another Wire mistake to further extend their lead after a Farrell penalty nudged them into a 14-6 lead. On a kick return, Dean Gaskell tried to find Daryl Cardiss, but could only find the turf – it was proper grass at Widnes back then, kids – and Bret Dallas was gifted another soft try.
Darren Burns pulled another back for Wire when he was the quickest to a pinpoint Briers grubber, but Brett Dallas completed his hat-trick when he went full length of the field from dummy half on the first tackle and killed off any hopes we had off a comeback.
Stephen Wild squeezed over in the opposite corner to rub some more salt into our wounds before Mike Forshaw grabbed a late consolation try for us in what would be his last ever appearance in the challenge cup.
This semi-final encounter was sadly the last time Mike Gregory would be involved in battles between these two arch-rivals, as the debilitating Motor Neurone Disease that he was suffering from would ravage his body even more so than it was not long after and he was soon too ill to fulfil his coaching role at Wigan.
Warrington team that day:
Daryl Cardiss, Ben Westwood, Darren Burns, Ian Sibbit, Dean Gaskell, Lee Briers, Nathan Wood, Mark Hilton, Jon Clarke, Danny Lima, Jerome Guisset, Mike Wainwright, Mike Forshaw
Subs: Paul Noone, Gary Hulse, Mark Gleeson, Warren Stevens