Winger Regan Grace celebrated his new contract by scoring a hat-trick of tries to help St Helens to a 23-18 victory over Huddersfield in a tense Betfred Challenge Cup quarter-final at Headingley.
The Giants threatened to cause an upset when they led 12-10 at half-time and the tie was still in the balance until Grace – who this week extended his stay with the Super League champions to the end of 2022 – went over for his third try five minutes from the end.
The victory takes St Helens a step closer to getting their hands on the trophy for the first time since 2008 but they were pushed all the way by a Huddersfield team who are improving every week after a sluggish start to the season under new coach Ian Watson.
Saints welcomed England winger Tommy Makinson back from injury, needing two tries for 150 in his career, but his involvement ended after just four minutes as he hobbled from the field.
At least the champions had the versatile Jack Welsby to call on. Relegated to the bench for the first time this season after impressive displays at full-back and centre, the Grand Final match-winner slotted in at centre, with Kevin Naiqama switched to the wing to great effect.
The Giants looked the livelier side at the start and opened the scoring after five minutes when long-serving club captain Michael Lawrence raced onto captain Aidan Sezer’s perfectly-placed grubber kick to the line.
Sezer’s conversion made it 6-0 and the Yorkshiremen thought they had scored again when loose forward Josh Jones pounced on another kick from his captain but the try was disallowed for a knock-on.
St Helens hit back after 17 minutes when Theo Fages’ grubber kick rebounded off a defender into the grateful hands of Grace, who was able to force his way over for his first try.
Lachlan Coote was wide with the conversion but the champions took the lead after 32 minutes when centre Mark Percival took in Jonny Lomax’s cut-out pass and stretched out of a two-man tackle to score their second try, which was converted.
Huddersfield continued to match the champions stride for stride and regained the lead on the stroke of half-time when left winger Darnell McIntosh finished off a slick handling move with an acrobatic dive at the corner.
Sezer landed the touchline conversion to make it 12-10 but Coote brought his side level five minutes into the second half with a penalty after a ball steal from Percival had put his side in a prime attacking position.
The momentum was firmly with Saints and they went back in front after 52 minutes when Grace proved unstoppable on a 10-metre charge for the line.
Coote kicked his third goal and Fages put his side two scores in front with a 63rd-minute drop goal, moments after having one attempt charged down by Huddersfield full-back Lee Gaskell.
Coote then had a try disallowed for a knock-on and Huddersfield made the most of the let-off to set up a grandstand finish.
Sezer’s kick to the line caused all sorts of confusion in the Saints defence and former St Helens second rower Joe Greenwood picked up the loose ball to get McIntosh over for his second try.
Sezer’s second touchline conversion cut the deficit to a point but Grace made sure of a place in Saturday’s semi-final draw when he took Percival’s pass to cross for his third try.
St Helens: Coote; Makinson, Naiqama, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Walmsley, Roby, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Thompson, Mata’utia, Batchelor. Subs: Amor, Paasi, Welsby, Smith.
Tries: Grace (3), Percival Goals: Coote 3 Drop Goals: Fages 1
Huddersfield: Gaskell; McGillvary, Leutele, McQueen, McIntosh; Cogger, Sezer; Yates, Cunningham, Lawrence, Edwards, Jones, Greenwood. Subs: O’Brien, English, Wood, Trout.
Tries: Lawrence, McIntosh (2) Goals: Sezer 3