St Helens will face Warrington in the 2019 Challenge Cup final, but only after being given a stern test by brave Halifax.
The Championship side hadn’t been giving a hope in the build-up against the runaway Super League leaders, who led by just six points at the interval.
Fitness and quality told in the final quarter as Saints pulled away to win 26-2, though the Yorkshiremen could go away from the University of Bolton Stadium with their heads held high.
Saints had caused some controversy by resting 10 players for their league defeat at London last week in preparation for this game, and their level of respect for the opposition was shown inside three minutes, when Danny Richardson opted to take the two points from bang in front of the posts after Scott Murrell had pulled back Jonny Lomax as he chased a kick through.
Undeterred, Halifax went for a short kick-off and claimed it, just as they had done at the very start of the match, former St Helens centre Steve Tyrer the man to pluck it from the air on both occasions.
That was about as good as it got in the early stages for Halifax, who struggled to make metres ball in hand and were left kicking it from deep inside their own half, Murrell kicking out on the full from inside his own 20 metres.
Their tackling was superb though, particularly in the first half, and the way they fronted up against their big-hitting opponents was admirable.
As time ticked on, Halifax grew in belief and confidence, Murrell forced a repeat set when his kick had Regan Grace trapped in-goal and from the resulting set, they would incredibly level the game at 2-2, Tyrer converting a penalty from 40 metres out on 13 minutes.
The ferocity of the Halifax tackling was best evidenced when Adam Tangata, who started the season full-time at Widnes, left Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook sitting on the deck with a mighty one-on-one hit, while experienced Scott Grix was also doing his bit with some tough defence at the back.
Murrell might have contemplated a drop goal midway through the first half in what was the nearest Halifax had managed to get to the Saints line, but they were still standing firm at the other end, even Golden Boot winner Tommy Makinson couldn’t pull off one of his trademark finishes in the right corner.
Saints would eventually break the whitewash five minutes from half-time and the manner of it was somewhat unfortunate for Halifax. From dummy half, James Roby looked to pass right, was forced to fake with no options, and as the Halifax defenders slid across to follow the expected play, it left just enough room for Roby to sniff a gap and he didn’t need asking twice. Richardson converted for 8-2 at half-time.
Halifax’s resolve would be tested in the second half, but their determination in the tackle didn’t waver. They conceded a second try on 48 minutes, Dom Peyroux just doing enough to get the ball done in some uncertainty, validated by the video referee, but that didn’t open the floodgates.
It was to Halifax’s credit that it took Saints fans until the 62nd minute to break in to the “que sera” Wembley song, after Lomax had been given space on the outside by Richardson’s pass to slide over for 20-2.
They added a further score through Theo Fages, who got on the end of a neat Roby dab kick through, and their bid for a treble goes on.
Too much respect?
Were St Helens guilty of showing Halifax too much respect? They played a weakened side at London the week previous to build up to the game, and then took an early penalty goal to take the lead. An early try may well have dampened Halifax spirits. Halifax’s efforts were fantastic, but maybe Saints could be accused of not being as ruthless with their opponent as they might have been had this been a run of the mill league game.
Embrace what’s on the pitch
Rugby league is a sport obsessed by ifs, buts and maybes off the pitch. The bottom line is that it should all be about the rugby. Here we had the ninth best team in the Championship going toe to toe with the runaway league leaders from the top flight. 1st v 21st in the “British” game. But apparently, that’s not enough. You missed out if you’d not watched because you had been told that this game had already been decided on paper.
The overall attendance for the day was 24,364, a slight decrease on last season. There was almost 4,000 in the ground at the end of the women’s Challenge Cup final which started the day. This event made an encouraging start in Bolton last season and it is worth perservering with. My only issue with it is the unavoidable number of empty seats during all the games, as not many fans stay for the whole day. I’m not sure whether adding a third game to the mix helps with that either – almost a full block behind the posts was taken by Castleford fans, most of who disappeared after the women’s game.
Line-up and ratings
St Helens: Lomax 8, Makinson 6, Naiqama 6, Percival 8, Grace 6, Fages 7, Richardson 7, Walmsley 6, Roby 8, Thompson 7, McCarthy-Scarsbrook 6, Peyroux 7, Paulo 6. Subs: Amor 6, Lees 6, Ashworth 6, Bentley 6.
Tries: Roby, Peyroux, Lomax, Fages. Goals: Richardson 5
Halifax: Grix 8, Robinson 6, Tyrer 7, Saltonstall 7, Sharp 7, Murrell 7, Johnston 7, Tangata 8, Moore 7, Kavanagh 7, Butler 7, Barber 7, Fairbank 7. Subs: Kaye 7, Morris 6, Fleming 6, Larroyer 6.