Wigan paid for the folly of their front-rower Ben Flower as they tried and failed to become the first team to win the Super League Grand Final with 12 men.
Wigan lost the title they won last season and Saints put an end to a sequence of five Old Trafford defeats, but for a long time it looked as though the Warriors might somehow overcome their self-imposed handicap.
The game had hardly begun when Flower was dismissed for punching the already flat-out Lance Hohaia. We will never know whether Wigan could have retained their crown with 13 men.
"I don't condone what he did," said his coach, Shaun Wane. "It was a red – he deserved to go. He's done some good things for me, Ben, but he's made a huge error today."
Wane was full of appreciation for the players who almost made up for Flower's absence, however. "I was really, really proud of the desire and character we showed to stick at it," he added. "But Saints were the better team and they deserved to win."
Saints' coach, Nathan Brown, who was taking charge of the team for the last time before returning to Australia, praised the way his players have battled through a potentially crippling injury toll to emerge as champions – albeit as odd-looking champions with no recognised half-backs.
"It was a huge occasion and a fitting way to go home," he said at the end of a stint that also saw him coach with success at Huddersfield. "I'm so delighted for the fans and the players.''
Despite Saints finishing top of Super League after the regular season, Wigan's settled side and a comparatively clean bill of health made them the obvious favourites last night, although the late withdrawal of Michael McIlorum with a cheekbone injury was a blow.
It meant promotion for two of Wigan's young players, with Sam Powell starting at hooker and George Williams on the bench.
There was no time to assess the effect of those changes, however, before the moment of madness from Flower. After losing the ball in the second minute and the pair having an innocuous brush with each other, the Welsh prop's first challenge on Hohaia was not a good one.
His second, a blatant punch into the face of his opponent, who was already prostrate on the pitch, was the cheapest of cheap shots.
It left the referee, Phil Bentham, with no choice but to make Flower the first player to be sent off – or even sin-binned – in the 16-year history of the Grand Final.
Hohaia went off for treatment to his battered face and did not reappear and, for most of the first half, Wigan managed without Flower rather better than Saints did without their Kiwi half-back.
They took the lead when Adam Swift, attempting to run the ball out of his own territory, ran behind a team-mate for a clear obstruction, Matty Smith kicking the goal.
It took another penalty, this time for Brent Green holding on to James Roby, to bring the scores level just before the half-hour.
Finally, with 15 seconds left in the half, some coherent rugby broke out. Green made one of his surging, diagonal runs and his cut-out pass to Joe Burgess was inch-perfect. The 19-year-old winger has shown what an exceptional finisher he is in this, his first full season.
His try, expertly taken in the corner, was his 25th this year and, even with Smith missing the conversion, gave them a handy little lead they can hardly have anticipated when Flower was shown the red card.
Saints' problem was that, with their one-man advantage, they felt they should be scoring on every play. That led to some passing which was optimistic to say the least.
It was when they kept it simple that they scored, Sia Soliola, in his last game for Saints, taking the ball short off James Roby – who pipped him to the man of the match award – at dummy-half to muscle his way through the tacklers for the try which, when it was improved by Mark Percival, put them ahead for the first time in the 53rd minute.
Wigan nearly replied immediately when Liam Farrell burst down the left, but John Bateman knocked on and the chance was wasted.
Wigan did get their opportunity to equalise when Josh Jones was penalised for holding on to Josh Charnley as they threatened Saints' line. Smith, no Pat Richards with his goal-kicking, missed one he should have landed.
Saints were ready to kill off their neighbours and great rivals. With 11 minutes to play, their captain, Paul Wellens, a veteran of all five of Saints' run of Old Trafford defeats, launched a high kick from the right.
Their leading try-scorer, Tommy Makinson, got to it and scored his 29th and most definitive try of Saints' remarkable season.
St Helens Wellens; Makinson, Percival, Jones, Swift; Hohaia, Flanagan; Masoe, Roby, Amor, Soliola, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Turner. Substitutes used Walmsley, Thompson, Manu, Richards.
Wigan Bowen; Charnley, Sarginson, Gelling, Burgess; Green, Smith; Crosby, Powell, Flower, Tomkins, Farrell, O'Loughlin. Substitutes used Pettybourne, Bateman, Clubb, Williams.
Referee P Bentham.Reuse content