St Helens made it three Challenge Cups in a row, but it was not until the last few minutes of the match that they broke the resistance of brave Hull in a final that revived the old Wembley tradition of high drama and put it on a new stage.
The second final at the rebuilt Wembley had everything that the first – Saints' easy win over the Catalans Dragons last year – lacked, especially atmosphere and uncertainty. In the end it was a second try from Francis Meli that snatched away the lead Hull had briefly held, denying them the chance of ending their unwanted record of never winning at Wembley.
It looked like being St Helens' day before kick-off, when the remaining selection issues resolved themselves in their favour. Maurie Fa'asavalu, who had not played since the semi-final due to to a hamstring injury,was sufficiently recovered to take his place on the Saints bench. Hull were not so fortunate. They were without the injury-prone half-back Adam Dykes, who aggravated a knee problem in training, and thus took the major risk of naming Richard Horne, out since April with a serious neck condition, on their bench.
Saints' luck in the opening minutes was distinctly mixed, however. In their first tackle, Paul Sculthorpe dislocated his shoulder while stopping Todd Byrne. The former Great Britain captain had to be helped off, in obvious distress, and he was to play no further part in the game. It was the latest chapter in a sorry chronicle of injury woes.
On the other hand, his side were awarded a try that should never have been. After seven minutes, Jon Wilkin's pass to Meli was horrendously forward but Steve Ganson, a St Helens man becoming the first official to referee his hometown club in a final, allowed play to go on. Meli kicked ahead, Byrne knocked on and, from the scrum, the ball went out to Matt Gidley, who showed it to Ade Gardner but opted to score himself.
Saints could have had a second try down the same channel, but Gardner lost Gidley's pass just short of the line. The Hull coach, Richard Agar, made his big throw of the dice by bringing Richard Horne on to join his brother Graeme, playing at centre, after only 15 minutes. It did not help that the new arrival was immediately dumped on his back by James Graham.
Almost immediately, Hull went further behind. Byrne could have scored for Hull if he had been able to gather Tommy Lee's kick. Instead, Saints took a quick restart, Graham got the ball to Meli and the winger went through some unprepared defenders to touch down.
Sean Long's conversion made for a 10-point lead, but it could have been a lot worse for Hull. Willie Talau had a try disallowed for a forward pass and Byrne's magnificent try-saving tackle on Meli took him into touch.
Hull lost their 18-year-old substitute wing, Tom Briscoe, with a twisted ankle soon after the interval, but they seized their chance to get back into the game when Kirk Yeaman intercepted Keiron Cunningham's loose pass and went 80 metres to score, despite Leon Pryce's chase.
A touch judge, Steve Wright, had to go off with a calf tear and in temperatures in the nineties, Hull also looked out on their feet. But Saints could not quite put them to sleep.
Another golden opportunity to do so was wasted when Long had a try disallowed for obstruction, and Saints looked like paying the penalty for their misses when Hull went into the lead just before the hour.
Saints' man of the match, Paul Wellens, was ruled to have knocked on in fielding a low kick and, from the scrum, Willie Manu drew in the tacklers and got the ball away for Yeaman to score his second try, with Danny Tickle's second conversion putting Hull ahead.
Saints found the ideal response when Pryce got his arms free to send Meli in for his second try two minutes later, and when Wilkin charged down Danny Washbrook's kick to put them 10 points in front, Hull's challenge was surely over. Nobody had told them that, though, and with six minutes left Gareth Raynor took Yeaman's pass to score in the corner.
The result was not safe for Saints until Jamie Thackray lost the ball in a tackle and Pryce went over the line. Even then the celebrations were postponed while a flare-up between Thackray and Long was sorted out.
It was not, as both coaches acknowledged afterwards, a classic final in pure rugby terms, but it had been gripping from start to finish, with Hull's courage as big a factor as Saints' unrivalled big-match know-how.
'We've been very honest for 80 minutes'
Hull's young coach, Richard Agar, praised his side's attitude in defeat as the club who cannot win at Wembley fell at the final hurdle yet again, writes Dave Hadfield.
The Airlie Birds have not won in seven visits to the national stadium, old and new, but the present side's coach could tell them they had nothing to be ashamed of yesterday.
"We gave it everything we've got and we showed tremendous commitment to each other," Agar said. "We were 10 points down but came back to be in with a shout of winning the game."
Agar wants his team to use this game as a springboard to better things, after finishing next to bottom in Super League. "We can't be happy with a brave effort," he said. "Next time we come here, we want to win."
St Helens' Australian coach, Daniel Anderson, who is leaving the club at the end of this season after three-and-a-half successful years, described this as one of his toughest matches.
"I'm exhausted and I've not played," he said, referring to the heat. "They were very difficult conditions for both sides, but we've been very honest over the full 80 minutes."
Paul Wellens, who won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, paid special tribute to Paul Sculthorpe, the loose forward who lasted one minute of his first Wembley final before dislocating a shoulder.
"We're shattered for him," said Wellens. "With all the success he's had, he's still such a level-headed lad. We'll all have a beer with him tonight, try to put a smile back on his face and hope it isn't as bad as it looked."
Anderson warned that his squad would be back to business straight away, to prepare for the derby against Wigan on Friday that could give them the League Leaders' Trophy.
"We'll pat ourselves on the back for the next 24 hours, and then it's back into it," he said.Reuse content