The wait is almost over for St Helens. Anyone who has followed one of rugby league’s most successful clubs in the 13 years since their last Challenge Cup triumph in 2008 would argue the most difficult hurdle is still to be cleared next month when they walk out at Wembley for the final of the sport’s most prestigious competition for the 23rd time in their history.
But afternoons like these, where the opposition are resilient, the conditions are energy-sapping and the stakes are high, are the ones where you really find out what a team is made of.
是的, St Helens still have to win next month to complete the job and end their remarkable drought, but the way they acquitted themselves for large parts of this 33-18 semi-final victory over Hull – as well as throughout 2021 in general – stands them in very good stead for the final.
How they were made to dig deep here, 尽管. Seemingly sauntering their way through with a three-score lead going into the final 15 分钟, tries from Danny Houghton and Cameron Scott reduced St Helens’ lead to three points in the blink of an eye.
Hull were then in prime position to strike again and secure a remarkable victory, but an incredible 90-metre interception try from the St Helens winger Regan Grace decided this enthralling semi-final.
There is no doubting that a huge moment threatened to overshadow this contest, 尽管. With St Helens ahead by six and half-time approaching, a routine carry from his own line by Josh Griffin ended disastrously, when the centre appeared to suffer a serious achilles injury. He immediately fell to the ground and was clearly in excruciating pain, but in doing so, he threw the ball out of his grasp.
Should Griffin have held on to enable play to stop? 也许. Should the referee, Liam Moore, have called a halt with the whistle? 也许. But neither of those things materialised and instead, with play still live, Theo Fages swooped on the loose ball to race in under the posts and make it 14-2 in St Helens’ favour.
Whether it swung the contest decisively is unclear, but it undoubtedly put them in control in terms of the scoreline.
Before that, Hull had started well but only had a Marc Sneyd penalty to show for their early dominance. When St Helens settled, you always felt they would make their opponents pay, which they duly did when Grace finished in the corner, before two goals from the boot of Lachlan Coote made it 8-2.
That all led up to Griffin’s injury and Fages’ decision to play on and score, which certainly irked the 700 Hull fans who were fortunate enough to be in attendance.
When Jack Welsby reached out to extend St Helens’ lead to 18 points shortly after half-time, it felt something of a procession for the reigning Super League champions.
But credit must go to Hull for how they threatened an almighty comeback, which began when Mahe Fonua replied with a well-worked finish to claw his side back into contention.
A drop goal from Fages re-established Saints’ three-score lead, but when Houghton scooted over, and Scott then did the same three minutes later, 突然, there was three points between the sides. 然而, in a game of fine margins, when Jake Connor’s loose pass was picked off by Grace, it finally put Hull’s challenge to bed.
This squad have achieved plenty in recent seasons but the one prize they really want, the Challenge Cup, is now tantalisingly close.