Old Trafford here we come!
Warrington Wolves 30 - Huddersfield Giants 22
By Alan Domville (photo courtesy Neil Ashurst, P&B Pictures)
Warrington are back at Old Trafford! Victory over league leaders Huddersfield in an epic play-off semi-final at the Halliwell Jones booked our place at the Theatre of Dreams on October 5 where we will meet the winners of the Wigan-Leeds tie.
It was the fourth win for the Wolves against the Giants this season and ninth in succession - and our first league title in 58 years is now just 80 minutes away.
This was one of the great games of the Super League era with Warrington displaying the form that has resulted in three Wembley wins and one Grand Final appearance since 2009 and Huddersfield showing why they have become so strong during the past season.
Joel Monaghan, who scored two great tries, won the sponsors' man of the match award while Sky gave the accolade to Lee Briers whose kicking game continually penned Huddersfield back and also created chances for his team-mates - and no one could argue with either choice. But there were 17 heroes out there wearing primrose and blue and if asked I would have given the champagne to Simon Grix who scored a superb try when it truly mattered and then came up with another to settle matters.
With Richie Myler available again, Warrington were at full strength and Tony Smith opted not to risk Trent Waterhouse nor Brett Hodgson, both recovering from knocks.
Making their final appearance in primrose and blue at the Halliwell Jones were captain Adrian Morley, who is moving to Salford Red Devils, Garreth Carvell, who is joining the Bradford Bulls and Mike Cooper who is bound for the NRL.
Huddersfield coach Paul Anderson had included full back Scott Grix in his 19 but he was ruled out and Jake Connor came into the side.
Warrington started brilliantly. The first set resulted in a penalty for an offence in the tackle, Wolves went on the rampage and slick hands heading right saw Joel Monaghan dive over in the corner. Ratchford added the extras from the touchline and it was 6-0 with less than three minutes gone.
Huddersfield lost possession at a play-the-ball on their next set 30 metres from their line and then conceded a penalty. Wolves looked certain to score again but Albert Goldthorpe medal winner Danny Brough intercepted to diffuse the danger.
And it was Brough who was next to score, capitalising on Warrington not being able to hold their ball behind the try line and touching down. Video referee Ben Thaler was happy with the score and Danny converted to level the scores.
It had been an electrifying start and the action continued at 100 miles an hour.
Strong breaks from Chris Hill and Micky Higham put Wolves back on the offensive and a towering kick from Briers saw Chris Bridge held just short, an award of six more tackles and Paul Wood going close.
Warrington were given another penalty after Higham was held down in the tackle and began another raid from 25 metres. Higham was held on the line but then Wood was unable to hold the ball.
A huge kick from Brough bounced into touch inches from the Warrington line but that signalled a fresh attack from the Wolves. A lovely kick by Briers towards the posts was fumbled by Luke Robinson but the Giants held out.
Then came another huge kick from Brough and Chris Riley was unable to collect. After the free play had come to nought, Huddersfield attacked again from the scrum and despite the attentions of three defenders Jake Connor was able to celebrate his inclusion with a well-taken try. Brough couldn't convert but the visitors were ahead 10-6.
On 26 minutes Tony Smith was able to change his entire front row - a terrifying prospect for any side opposing the Wolves - but the Giants wouldn't lie down and there was an audible sigh of relief when a speculative kick by Brough was fielded by Grix.
Then came an untypical mistake from Briers who kicked straight into touch but happily some sloppy passing by Huddersfield gave back possession to Warrington. Joel Monaghan made a splendid run and Garreth Carvell went close - then Wolves struck. The ball went across to the right to set up a carbon copy of the first try, Bridge sending Joel over for his second touchdown. Ratchford made no mistake with his kick and Wolves were ahead again, 12-10.
More slick handling ended with Briers reaching out for the line but Ben Thaler ruled there had been a double movement.
But Warrington were not to be denied. Two minutes from the interval the visitors' defence was opened up by Richie Myler's beautiful kick through and Grix pounced to score his first try - as priceless as the last one he had scored against Leeds. Ratchford's third conversion put daylight between the sides at 18-10.
The next home set saw a brilliant darting run from Michael Monaghan and there was still time for another Huddersfield offensive as after the interval buzzer sounded the visitors kept the ball alive with a thrilling sequence of passes that looked dangerous. The ball was kicked towards the line but the situation was saved by Chris Bridge who was able to punch it into touch.
One felt another score from Warrington might settle the issue and early in the second half Robinson kicked out on the full. Wolves went on the attack and Myler put in a lovely kick to Joel Monaghan's corner but the winger couldn't get over.
Six minutes in came the breakthrough. Another beautiful kick from Briers enabled Atkins to catch it in the air and touch down. Yet another pinpoint kick from Ratchford made it 24-10 and the dream of a Grand Final appearance was looking like reality.
But the issue wasn't settled. Carvell lost the ball in a tackle 20 metres from his own line, Huddersfield regained possession and Jermaine McGilvary crossed in his corner. Brough's conversion made it 24-16.
The whole game was being played in the finest spirit but a head high hit on Riley by Dale Ferguson was placed on report by referee Richard Silverwood.
Carvell then made amends with a great offload and a Myler kick forced the first of three Huddersfield goal-line drop outs in quick succession while Grix went close and Briers tormented with a grubber.
Huddersfield went back on the attack after Riley had conceded possession by letting the ball bounce but the home defence held firm. After Atkins had managed to stay in play despite a wrestle near the touchline Briers forced another GLDO.
But then Huddersfield returned the compliment and came right back into the reckoning. Bridge was penalised for holding down in the tackle and a Robinson kick had to be fielded behind the line.
From the restart Ferguson reached out to score. Brough converted and it was 24-22 with just eight and a half minutes to go.
Eorl Crabtree, a handful when he was on the pitch, made a strong run and it was now vital Warrington could keep their nerve.
They did - and with less than four and a half minutes left it was yet another superb kick from Briers to the Huddersfield line that decided the issue, Grix collecting to score his second try.
Ratchford made it five from five kicks and the gap was again eight points.
The expected short kick on the restart enabled Huddersfield to hit back meaning yet another big defensive effort was needed - and Grix fielded the grubber on the fifth to save the situation. There was still time for more drama when Ben Harrison lost possession but Atkins was able to collect McGilvray's kick through as the countdown began.
The hooter sounded and the celebrations began; the title dream remains alive.
Spectators may have been drained of emotion - but there was still more to come as we said farewell to Adrian Morley, Brett Hodgson, Mike Cooper, Garreth Carvell, Rhys Williams and Tyrone McCarthy. Each of the departing players received framed pictorial records of their service in primrose and blue and commemorative shields. They were presented by Wire legends Alastair Brindle and Jackie Edwards.
And the Supporters' Trust also awarded prizes to Ben Westwood, the season's top tackler Adrian Morley for the try of the season - in the Magic Weekend at the Etihad Stadium; and to Micky Higham, named player of the year.
On now to Old Trafford!
Wolves' head of coaching and rugby Tony Smith said: "It was a tough old game and that is what you expect at this time of year. We were a bit off in some areas. I don't think we were composed tonight. I thought we didn't quite control the game like we have been in recent weeks; some of that is down to Huddersfield and the part they played in that match. They are a dangerous team and threw a bit at us as well. I thought we just lacked some composure even though the effort was there.
"We were a bit edgy; trying a bit too hard to get the game put to bed too early instead of building but we'll learn from it. We'll take our lessons from that game into next week whoever we end up playing."
He added: "Huddersfield have had a tremendous year and we've been just behind them but tonight we've overtaken them in terms of the number of losses for the season; I don't think anybody can have fewer losses than us even if we don't get through next week with a win, so we've had a pretty remarkable season ourselves."
And looking ahead to the Grand Final: "I think the experience of having been there helps you; some of the lessons we learnt last year we've applied this year. We were very proud of what we achieved last year and our performance in last year's Grand Final but I'm not an advocate of that (have to lose one to win one). You've still got to go out there and execute on the day. It doesn't matter how much experience you get you've still got to take those opportunities. Hopefully that will be next week for us but if not we'll have made a proud effort."
Stefan Ratchford, Chris Riley, Chris Bridge, Ryan Atkins, Joel Monaghan, Lee Briers, Richie Myler, Paul Wood, Micky Higham, Chris Hill, Simon Grix, Ben Westwood, Ben Harrison
Subs: Adrian Morley, Michael Monaghan, Garreth Carvell, Mike Cooper
Tries: J Monaghan (2), Grix (2), Atkins
Goals: Ratchford (5)
Jake Connor, Jermaine McGilvary, Leroy Cudjoe, Joe Wardle, Aaron Murphy, Danny Brough, Luke Robinson, Eorl Crabtree, Shaun Lunt, Craig Kopczak, Brett Ferres, Jason Chan, Michael Lawrence
Subs: Larne Patrick, Ukuma Ta'ai, Dale Ferguson, Kyle Wood
Tries: Brough, Connor, McGilvary, Ferguson
Goals: Brough (3)
Half Time: 18-10
Full Time: 30-22
Attendance: 10, 042
27, Sep, 2013