Goulding sets the standard

St Helens 40 Bradford Bulls 32
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The current sponsors of what remains the game's greatest prize will follow the BBC this week by opening negotiations on a new contract.

The ideal sponsors for this Silk Cut Challenge Cup final, however, would have been Guinness, so packed was it with superlatives. The game provided the highest Wembley score by a winning team; the highest by a losing side and by far the highest points aggregate; the youngest captain, who also became the first scorer of a Wembley hat-trick.

That is the statistical evidence for the 1996 final being uniquely memorable.

Harder to quantify, but equally compelling, was the consensus, even among those who have seen dozens of these events, that this was the best 80 minutes the final has produced. For sustained excitement not even the 1985 final between Wigan and Hull, or Wigan's win over Hunslet 20 years earlier, could come close.

None of which will be much consolation to Bradford, who came back from a dreadful start to have the match, to all intents and purposes, won after 50 minutes.

That they failed actually to do so was the result of relentless pressure on their full-back, Nathan Graham, who eventually cracked, just as the Saints coach, Shaun McRae, had told his men he would.

The result was three tries in seven minutes and, although the Bulls fought back once more, that proved the decisive burst of scoring.

Graham's personal disaster overshadowed aspects of the match which would have stood out in bold relief in any other final. There was Steve Prescott's early pair of tries, the extraordinary display by Robbie Paul and at least two other tries that were worthy of winning a Wembley final.

The way that Paul Newlove and Danny Arnold, sidestepping a phalanx of charging Bulls like a matador, fashioned Saints' third try would have been unforgettable if it had not been merely one of 13 tries.

Paul's third, earning him a pounds 10,000 bonus - which he intends to share with his team mates - was even better, a dazzling run from his own half that left a series of Saints defenders bemused and rooted to the spot.

If there was any doubt before that about Paul winning the Lance Todd Trophy, there was none after.

For a prodigiously talented 20-year-old who insists that he is still learning the game, the match was something of a coming of age.

Indeed, much of his best work was so reminiscent of his elder brother Henry that one Lance Todd Trophy vote was cast for him, despite the minor detail that he and his Wigan team-mates had the afternoon off for the first time in nearly a decade.

The battle for supremacy between Paul and Bobbie Goulding was an absorbing one and if the New Zealander came away with the individual honours, Goulding's influence never waned and it was his kicking in open play which actually won the match.

Previous finals have been won by less impressive goal kicking than Paul Cook's six from six attempts, but that was just another strand of excellence which became camouflaged in the rich fabric of the whole occasion.

As for the unfortunate Graham, there are two words of consolation that might help him a little this week - Gary Connolly.

The then St Helens full-back was bombed into oblivion by Wigan in 1989 and has recovered from that experience to become one of the code's most composed and reliable players. So there can be life even after being publicly put to the sword as Graham was on Saturday.

The consolation for Bradford as a team is, as their stand-off Graeme Bradley put it, that they have a lot of improvement left in them.

Their coach, Brian Smith, admitted at the end that the final had probably come a little too early in his period of office and his rebuilding of the club from the ground up.

For Saints there was the sense of fulfilling their destiny by winning the cup for the first time in 20 years in the season when Wigan were conveniently out of the equation.

"The point now is that it should not be a one-off," McRae said. "We want to do well in the Super League and come back here next year and defend this title."

Bradford: Tries Paul 3, Dwyer, Scales; Goals Cook 6. St Helens: Tries Arnold 2, Prescott 2, Booth, K Cunningham, Perelini, Pickavance. Goals: Goulding 4.

Bradford: Graham; Cook, Calland, Loughlin, Scales; Bradley, Paul; McDermott, Dwyer, Hamer, Donougher, Nickle, Knox. Substitutes: Medley, Fairbank, Hassan, Donohue

St Helens: Prescott; Arnold, Gibbs, Newlove, Sullivan; Hammond, Goulding; Perelini, Cunningham, Leathem, Joynt, Booth, Northey. Substitutes: Martyn, Hunte, Matautia, Pickavance.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes)