The Warrington coach, Daryl Powell, used his best kidology all week to try to play down the significance of this game for one of rugby league’s most famous clubs. Yet the outpouring of emotion as Ben Currie crossed for the try that finally put this game – and perhaps the Wolves’ relegation worries – to bed showed just what victory meant.
There were Wolves players hugging. Others fell to the turf, physically and emotionally exhausted by what they had just gone through. Powell leaped from his seat and punched the air. These were the kind of scenes that Warrington, Powell and their supporters had hoped would be occurring after winning a major trophy, not moving six points clear of relegation with four games remaining.
Make no mistake, had Warrington lost and fallen to within two points of their vanquished opponents, the most remarkable relegation in recent history would have been a genuine possibility. How Super League’s biggest-spending club must have feared the worst at half-time.
Warrington deservedly led 12-0 after half an hour, at which point the most consequential game of the season so far felt like it may be a routine night at the office. But in a seven-minute spell before the break the hosts collapsed in spectacular fashion, and by the interval Toulouse led 18-14.
Powell was lured from Castleford Tigers last winter to deliver success for a club approaching 60 years without a league title, not to scrape over the line in a relegation battle. Perhaps we all, Powell included, underestimated the size of the job he inherited, with years of big transfers failing to deliver the title this town craves.
The coach wielded the axe last winter, culling long-serving players including Chris Hill. He hasn’t stopped there, with fellow England internationals Josh Charnley and Mike Cooper leaving the club mid-season as he tries to put his stamp on the Wolves. More big-money recruits from Australia are coming next year and it is becoming increasingly apparent this is not an overnight job.
But unlike in recent weeks, Warrington’s latest capitulation didn’t cost them two points. Instead they responded after the break to score 18 unanswered points and ensure what at half-time looked destined to be a three-way battle to avoid the drop will now probably be a fight between Toulouse and Wakefield, who face Wigan on Sunday.
“It’s been tough,” Powell admitted. “I’ve been involved in a lot of finals as a player and a coach and I was more nervous leading into this game. The obvious repercussions of losing this game, the pressure … it was huge.”
Tries from Oliver Holmes and Connor Wrench had originally given the Wolves the lead and Toulouse were offering little in way of a response. But Warrington’s brittle confidence – another major failing in their season – was exposed when Corey Norman cut through for a try against the run of play.
Within minutes Éloi Pélissier had followed with two quickfire tries and at half-time Toulouse led by four. Warrington’s owner, the music mogul Simon Moran, paced the stands with almost palpable nerves at an interval which, for Wolves supporters, must have felt like a lifetime. He has invested millions in this club but the Championship was looking like a distinct possibility.
Warrington needed to respond. And in fairness, they did. Toulouse’s coach, Sylvain Houles, felt his side were harshly treated by the officials post-match, saying: “There’s a few 50-50s that go against us but it’s all the time, it’s been like that for a few months.”
Toulouse lost two players to the sin-bin in the second half and it proved decisive. While Joe Bretherton and Harrison Hansen were off the field Warrington scored twice through Wrench and George Williams to spark furious celebrations. By the time the pair returned, all that was left was for Currie to add the finishing touch in the dying seconds.
One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief in the process. Yes, Warrington are safe – but a club with such major resources has a big off-season inquest coming to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Warrington Dufty; Wrench, Mata’utia, Wardle, Ashton; Ratchford; Williams; Harrison, D Clark, Bullock, Currie, Nicholson, Holmes Interchange J Clark, Mulhern, Walker, Mikaele Toulouse Ashall-Bott; Schaumkel, Jussaume, Hankinson, Russell; Norman, Gigot; Navarrete, Peats, Alvaro, Bretherton, Peyroux, Marion Interchange Pélissier, Hansen, Belmas, Sangaré Sin-bin Bretherton, Hansen Referee C Kendall