Holders Warrington Wolves made it through to the Challenge Cup semi-finals with a 20-18 defeat of St Helens, in an entertaining repeat of last year’s final.
It was a notable surprise in August last year when Steve Price’s side overcame all-conquering opposition to win 18-4 in the Wembley sunshine, and it is a sign of how far they have progressed that it was no shock this time around, as they finally began their defence of the trophy more than 12 months on.
There was virtually nothing going into it on form; both were tied with Wigan Warriors at the top of Super League and both had perfect records since the season restart. Something had to give.
What wilted was the Saints defence, specifically in 10 spectacular minutes at the end of the first half. Anthony Gelling, Josh Charnley and Matty Ashton all scored tries which were sensational in their own ways, and from there the Wolves rearguard was able to repel just about every threat sent its way.
Although Warrington won the cup, Saints had the run of their rivals in the league all last season. Now, it feels like things are changing. The two clubs had Super League’s best defences in 2019, but the difference was a staggering 138 points. No team had the steel of St Helens, yet this season they have not only been caught up but beaten by Wire in that regard.
While, for various reasons in this madcap year, Saints may not have reached quite the same searing intensity as in the previous two campaigns, it is still a sizeable leap that Warrington have made. And ultimately that it the reason why, as one team lick their wounds and continue to lack the Challenge Cup triumph on the list of honours won by this talented group, the other goes on in the defence of their silverware.
Story of the match
St Helens started off a delightfully entertaining match with a superb try. They are well-known for their magical, mesmerising play but they still have new tricks up their sleeve, and a serious of quick passes and offloads in tight space, lastly from Mark Percival, brought the opener for Jonny Lomax.
Warrington soon established the run of the game yet typically miserable Saints defence kept them out for long periods, helped additionally be a questionable call of forward pass when Stefan Ratchford looked to have sent Jake Mamo in. Soon after, Lachlan Coote added a long-range penalty to his conversion to make it 8-0.
Only after half an hour did Wire finally find a way through thanks to a brilliantly precise kick across the field from Blake Austin, who hung the ball up for Gelling to leap and touch down. Once on a roll, even Saints couldn’t stop them.
They took the lead thanks to two brilliant pieces of play; the first from Gelling to flip a breathtaking offload into the hands of Charnley, and the second from the winger to immediately spot where the gap would be among the line of defenders tracking back and plot his path inside to score. The last minute of the half then brought the further joy of a Ashton sprint through clear field, with the ball going the length of the field after Toby King’s run through broken play and Mamo’s assist.
Saints re-established a foothold on proceedings after the break, but the Wolves clung on an admirable length of time. Morgan Knowles was denied what seemed a certain score by King and Ratchford, and Regan Grace was smashed out of play by Austin as he set flight for a trademark corner finish. The Welshman did get to land for a four-pointer five minutes later though, displaying athleticism that had to be seen to be believed to touch down after brilliant set-up play from Theo Fages and James Bentley.
That made the different two points, and they kept on pushing even after Warrington had received a huge slice of luck to restore a bigger lead. Jack Hughes’ pass deflected off the head of Gelling, with the ball spiralling forward into the reach of Charnley for an easy try, but Kristian Woolf’s men hit back again as Kevin Naiqama finished a well-worked move.
Coote could have levelled with the conversion put pulled a tough kick wide of the posts, and it proved a decisive miss. Saints had to push their passes and couldn’t find a way through, allowing the cup holders to see out time and reach the semi-finals.