Widnes are within 80 minutes of regaining the Super League place they lost after relegation last year as they edged out Whitehaven in a thrilling elimination semi-final at the Halton Stadium yesterday.
The Widnes fans in a near-5,000 crowd had to endure a nerve-racking final quarter as Whitehaven, beaten grand finalists the last two years, tried desperately to pull the game out of the fire. Sean Gleeson's 56th-minute try, which gave Widnes a 24-12 lead, looked to have secured their place for next Sunday's final against Hull KR.
The youngster, on loan from Wigan, capped a mature performance by diving on a loose ball after Ian Watson's kick rebounded off the Whitehaven winger, Craig Calvert. The try was awarded by the referee Karl Kirkpatrick who overruled his in-goal touch judge, who had signalled for a drop-out.
Whitehaven refused to throw in the towel and the veteran David Seeds went in from Carl Rudd's pass before Spencer Miller crossed for his second try after more Rudd trickery. But Rudd was off target with both conversion attempts and Whitehaven's last chance ended when the Widnes full-back Gavin Dodd dived to secure a loose ball ahead of Steve Maden from Mark Leafa's kick through.
"We expected Whitehaven to push us all the way and they did," said Steve McCormack, the Widnes coach. McCormack will be hoping for a case of third time lucky next week after coaching Whitehaven in the previous two finals. "We showed some Ryder Cup spirit today," he added.
McCormack's successor, Dave Rotheram, was furious at Gleeson's try. "Craig Calvert is adamant that he grounded the ball," he said. "Our indiscipline in the opening stages cost us, though the players responded superbly and contributed to an outstanding game."
Widnes established an 18-8 half-time lead despite a third-minute Miller try following a Damien Blanch handling error. Mark Smith fastened on to Watson's kick for their first try before Gleeson's one-handed pass sent Blanch over. Blanch then outstripped Calvert down the right before putting Dodd over. Though Leroy Joe replied with an early second-half try, Gleeson's controversial touchdown looked to have secured Widnes's safe passage. But that was only the beginning of the drama.
Widnes: Dodd; Blanch, Gleeson, Cardiss, Kirkpatrick; Moran, Watson; O'Connor, Smith, McDermott, Cassidy, Allen, Beswick. Substitutes used: Summers, James, Tandy.
Whitehaven: Broadbent; Maden, R Jackson, Seeds, Calvert; Joe, Duffy; Trindall, Lester, Fatialofa, Miller, Leafa, Rudd. Substitutes used: Mattinson, M Jackson, Hill, McAvoy.
Referee: K Kirkpatrick (Warrington).
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