- The Guardian, Monday 5 October 2009
Brian Noble had envisaged next Saturday's grand final at Old Trafford as the perfect setting for his last match as coach of Wigan. Instead he signed off after a semi-final defeat at St Helens, the fifth time in three seasons that Noble's team had fallen 80 minutes short of one of the game's biggest occasions.
That failure to deliver a first final appearance since 2003, or to mount a more consistent challenge to Saints and Leeds – whose dominance of the Super League will continue as they contest a third consecutive grand final – was cited by Wigan's chairman, Ian Lenagan, as the main reason behind Noble's departure, in a notably unsentimental, impromptu press conference.
After Noble had praised his players for "a sensational effort", which even Sean Long admitted had Saints seriously worried, and said that the months of speculation over his future had been "tough to handle", Lenagan took his place in front of the tea urns under the Knowsley Road stand. There were a few initial pleasantries but his message was clear.
"It was a decent performance but I think we are capable of better," said the Wigan-born former Harlequins owner and West End theatre producer. "This is the fifth time in a row that Wigan have been in a semi-final and not got to the final. It is my responsibility and my decision – a difficult one. But I have decided that we will have a better chance of returning to a position where Wigan are capable of winning trophies if we make this decision now."
Lenagan will announce Noble's successor on Wednesday, which would seem convenient timing for the Melbourne Storm assistant coach, Michael Maguire, flying in after their weekend grand final victory over Parramatta, to be unveiled as part of a dream ticket with Shaun Wane, the former Wigan forward who has been climbing through the club's junior coaching set-up over the last decade.
However, Melbourne officials said that they had no knowledge that Maguire would be making an imminent departure, suggesting that Wane could yet be given the top job.
Noble is now free to confirm his move to the Celtic Crusaders, although he refused to do so over the weekend. "I don't want to take any sheen or shine away from theterrific game of rugby we've just witnessed," he said, adding that his only immediate plans concern surgery to a knee problem that is a legacy of his playing days. However, the Welsh club are keen to make an announcement as soon as possible as they aim to draw a line under their nightmare debut season in the Super League and offer some reasons for optimism about 2010.
In many ways Noble's departure fitted perfectly with St Helens' strategy of sneaking under the radar ahead of their fourth consecutive Old Trafford appearance, after going into each of the last two as strong favourites, only to be ambushed by Leeds.
Remarkably the team formerly known as the great entertainers have gone eight matches since they last scored more than 14 points in a match. But after restricting Huddersfield to a single penalty in the first round of the play-offs, they defended equally impressively against Wigan, who needed a lucky bounce for George Carmont's first try and a combination of inspiration and desperation for Pat Richards to score their second.
That set up a pulsating finish. But for Noble, whose voice retained a tell-tale wobble a good half-hour after he had hugged each of the Wigan players on the pitch, another plucky effort and near miss were never going to be enough.
St Helens Wellens; Gardner, Gidley, Eastmond, Meli; Pryce, Long; Graham, Cunningham, Puletua, Flannery, Wilkin, Gilmour. Interchange Roby, Hargreaves, Clough, Fa'asavalu.
Tries Meli 2, Long. Goal Eastmond.
Wigan Warriors Phelps; Roberts, Gleeson, Carmont, Richards; S Tomkins, Leuluai; Coley, Riddell, Prescott, J Tomkins, Hansen, O'Loughlin. Interchange Fielden, Paleaaesina, Mossop, Flanagan.
Tries Carmont, Richards. Goal Richards.
Referee S Ganson (St Helens). Attendance 13,087.