Cunningham drives Saints close to play-off place

Widnes 4 St Helens 40
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The Independent Online

St Helens virtually ensured their place in the top four of Super League with an impressive performance at a packed Halton Stadium to dampen Widnes' own hopes of a play-off place.

Saints showed outstanding defensive resilience in an uncompromising local derby and revealed that their ability to take chances remains undiminished. No side has ever won the grand final after finishing outside the top two but Saints, whose best - though unlikely - ambition is third, could break that trend if they can reproduce more of this over the next weeks, particularly when Paul Sculthorpe returns after a hamstring injury.

Widnes, lacking their inspirational Australian Jules O'Neill - who has been ruled out for three weeks after knee surgery - pressed for long spells but could find no way through Saints' rearguard despite stand-out pack performances from the props Julian O'Neill and Robert Relf until Paul Devlin broke through from a scrum with eight minutes remaining.

By then Saints had silenced most of the home contingent in a 9,457 crowd, the Vikings' highest since returning to the top flight last year. The defending champions broke a tense deadlock with a typical try from their outstanding hooker, Keiron Cunningham, who burrowed over from dummy half in the right corner after 23 minutes for what proved to be the only score of the first half.

But Saints' stand-in captain, Sean Long, whose career took off after moving to Knowsley Road from Widnes in 1997, sparked his side's second-half domination by sending Jason Hooper through a gap for the Australian pivot to send Paul Wellens streaking over. Long kicked the first of six goals.

Saints moved further ahead when their prop Keith Mason grabbed his first try for the club, and settled the issue as Mick Higham raced 70 metres after a clever pass by Cunningham just after the hour-mark. Hooper's devastating run from deep inside his own half set up another long-range score, finished with aplomb by the Australian flyer Darren Albert before Devlin grabbed a deserved try.

But Saints finished with a flourish, Darren Smith and Albert each scoring in the dying minutes to conclude a thoroughly impressive response to their disappointing display in the defeat at Hull last week. Widnes need to win their last three games, at Huddersfield and Halifax and at home to London, to stand any chance of joining them in the play-offs.

Widnes: Spruce; Demetriou, James, Hughes, Devlin; Frame, Sheridan; Relf, Millard, O'Neill, Hay, Finnigan, Bird. Substitutes used: Farrell, Cantillon, Mills, Myler.

St Helens: Wellens; Albert, Talau, Newlove, Gardner; Long, Higham; Ward, Cunningham, Stankevitch, Smith, Bennett, Hooper. Substitutes used: Jonkers, Mason, Jones, Stewart.

Referee: I Smith (Oldham).

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