Saints show that quality always beats raw emotion

St Helens 32 Wigan 16
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On an unforgiving occasion like a Challenge Cup final, it is not enough to be sentimental favourites. Wigan had the best wishes of all the neutrals in the crowd at the Millennium Stadium, but St Helens, as they have hinted throughout this season, had the players for the occasion.

On an unforgiving occasion like a Challenge Cup final, it is not enough to be sentimental favourites. Wigan had the best wishes of all the neutrals in the crowd at the Millennium Stadium, but St Helens, as they have hinted throughout this season, had the players for the occasion.

"It was nice to go round Cardiff the night before and have Leeds, Bradford and Castleford fans saying that they were all Wiganers for the day," said the losing coach, Mike Gregory.

Gregory himself is the main reason why a club usually resented for being far too successful for much of its history should have been the popular choice in the last spring final before the move to August for subsequent years.

He is on his way to America today for two weeks' treatment for the bacterial infection that has weakened him so badly. The fairy-tale traditions of the cup would have been best served by sending him over there as a winner, but his players were not quite capable of achieving that for him.

If there was another impulse at work it was that Saints, for all their excellence on the field, have not done the game as a whole many favours this season.

That was why Sean Long - one of several outstanding contributors on the afternoon - was roundly booed when he became one of the élite band to win the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in a final for a second time.

His coach, Ian Millward, called that reception an acknowledgement of the major part Long had played in Wigan's defeat, but it was also a recognition of a lingering bad smell surrounding the game for which Saints have been responsible.

There was even some wild talk that Long could be deprived of the Lance Todd if he and Martin Gleeson are ultimately found guilty of allegations that they bet against their own side earlier this season. That will not happen, but it is a measure of the hostility that many in the game feel towards Saints.

Not that there is anything wrong with their rugby. All the virtues which have made them unbeatable, at full strength, this season were on display at a sold-out Millennium Stadium.

Long's kicking game was at its best, playing a crucial part in two of his team's tries, but it was their drive and fluency all over the pitch that put him in the positions to do the damage.

Established Saints stars like the two Pauls, Wellens and Sculthorpe, were outstanding, but much of their best work was a tribute to Millward's recent recruitment.

If they were lacking in the front row for much of last season, the acquisition of Nick Fozzard and Keith Mason - and the improvement Millward is coaxing out of them - has tackled that problem.

Lee Gilmour arrived from Bradford this winter as a rather confused utility player, but as a specialist second-rower he was another of his side's strengths on Saturday.

And then there was Willie Talau, another mid-season signing last year and not a particular success in the second row. His return to his natural position of centre this season has seen him become a major influence.

Talau scored two tries and had a hand in others, while Millward praised "the ruthless streak he has brought us in defence". He would have been at least as good a Lance Todd winner as Long, and one which would have been less of a free gift for those who did not believe that the scrum-half should even have been playing.

There was much to admire in Wigan's performance, especially in the first half. Some of the combinations between Andy Farrell and Gareth Hock were full of promise for the future and Adrian Lam was looking more like his old self than at any time since his major knee surgery.

But despite their meticulously structured preparation for the mechanics of starting a cup final, they were caught cold, giving Kris Radlinski the ball on the last tackle when he was not expecting it and conceding a try when he could not get his kick away.

Also, with temperatures on the sunny side of the pitch edging towards 30C, the fact that they had three props over 30 worked against them.

You also had to wonder just how emotionally exhausting the whole Gregory business had been for the club during the build-up to the match. Here is a man universally liked and admired within the game, and watching the toll that his illness has taken on him has not been easy for anyone, least of all for some of the young Wigan players for whose development he has been largely responsible.

Asked after the match how he was feeling, Gregory chose to answer in a different way.

"Pretty pissed off," he said. "But very proud of the effort." He is entitled to both those feelings as he leaves the team in the hands of his able lieutenant, Denis Betts, for the next fortnight. "No arguments - the best team won," he concluded.

That best team can get better, which is a daunting prospect for Wigan and the rest. It will take more than raw emotion and intensity of preparation to beat them.

St Helens 32
Tries: Gilmour, Talau 2, Wellens, Sculthorpe
Goals: Long 6

Wigan 16
Tries: Newton, Dallas 2
Goals: Farrell 2

Half-time: 20-10 Att: 73,734

St Helens: Wellens; Albert, Gleeson, Talau, Gardner; Hooper, Long; Fozzard, Cunningham, Mason, Joynt, Gilmour, P Sculthorpe. Substitutes used: Feaunati, Wilkin, Edmondson, Bibey.

Wigan: Radlinski; Hodgson, O'Loughlin, Brown, Dallas; Orr, Lam; Smith, Newton, Pongia, Tickle, Hock, Farrell. Substitutes used: O'Connor, Cassidy, Wild, D Sculthorpe.

Referee: K Kirkpatrick (Warrington).

Comments