RUGBY LEAGUE CHALLENGE CUP FINAL: Bulls fall on Saints' dagger

Click to follow
The Independent Online
St Helens 32 Bradford Bulls 22

It is, as their coach Shaun McRae insisted, too early to even start talking about St Helens' monopoly of the Challenge Cup like the one recently enjoyed by Wigan. But it is going to take an exceptional side to dislodge them.

Bradford might ultimately prove to be an exceptional side, but they were put firmly in their place on Saturday. The Bulls had the chances to win this final, but lacked the composure to take them. Saints, by contrast, have an unerring instinct for finding their opponents' weaknesses; they know where to plunge the dagger.

"Everyone expected us to launch the bombs again," said the Saints' captain, Bobbie Goulding, recalling their route to victory over Bradford last year. "We never worked on that at all this time. We never intended to bomb Stuart Spruce. But we worked on our little grubber kicks."

Two precisely judged examples of that species of kick were what put Saints on the path to victory, their man of the match, Tommy Martyn, twice timing his run to equal perfection.

Martyn, hailed as "the best stand-off in Britain" by McRae, also produced the most crucial tackle of the game early in the second half when his diving ankle tap on Danny Peacock prevented a try that would have put Bradford back on top. That he was later placed on report for a suspected trip, seemed a minor detail.

Goulding, prevented by suspension from playing any role in the three previous rounds of the Cup, let his vice-captain, Chris Joynt, go up the Wembley stairs to collect the cup. "They have done it for me this year," he said of his team-mates. "And this was my thank you to them."

Another with particular reason for satisfaction was Karle Hammond, who had dedicated his efforts in the final to the memory of his younger brother, who died at Christmas.

It was Hammond's pass, intercepted by Paul Loughlin, that gave Bradford a 10-4 lead midway through the first half. He made up for that error with an exhibition of sheer willpower.

Held up on the Bradford try-line, just before half-time, Hammond showed amazing strength to force the ball down, despite the attentions of five tacklers.

"I don't know how I did it, but I had to do it to make amends," he said.

Contrast that with the fortunes of Loughlin, who collected a fifth losers' medal, or those of Robbie Paul, the Bradford captain, who scored a hat- trick of tries last year and on whom so much of their hope rested this time.

Paul walked out on to the pitch like the coolest man on the planet, nonchalantly spinning a ball on his index finger. He was always a threat to Saints until he injured his foot early in the second half. Although he bravely came back on, he was lame and clearly in agony after the match.

The pain was so severe after he had been virtually carried into the press conference that he could not tell where exactly it was coming from - "it just feels like the foot, the whole foot and nothing but the foot," he said - before almost blacking out in mid-question. "It's a strange game and you do strange things to your body," he said, explaining his decision to return to the fray.

Matthew Elliott, the Bradford coach, insisted that it was execution rather than selection that cost them the match, but there must be some doubts about the team he picked.

The one he originally named, with Glen Tomlinson at scrum- half and Paul operating in a wider role, might have been better equipped for the task than the side who took the field.

We will never know. What is certain is that this Centenary final, while not a classic to stand with last year's, was full of intrigue, interest and significant incidence. It is equally certain that any side who want to beat St Helens in a Wembley final will have to get everything right on the day.

St Helens: Tries Martyn 2, Hammond, Joynt, Sullivan. Goals Goulding 6. Bradford Bulls: Tries Loughlin, Lowes, Peacock, Tomlinson. Goals McNamara 3.

St Helens: Prescott; Arnold, Haigh, Newlove, Sullivan; Martyn, Goulding; Perelini, Cunningham, O'Neill, Joynt, McVey, Hammond. Substitutes used: Pickavance, Matautia, Northey, Morley.

Bradford Bulls: Spruce; Ekoku, Peacock, Loughlin, Cook; Bradley, Paul; McDermott, Lowes, Reihana, Nickle, Dwyer, McNamara. Substitutes used: Tomlinson, Medley, Knox, Calland.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

Man of the match: Martyn.

Attendance: 78,022.