Rugby League: Saints feast after ending Wigan's reign

RUGBY LEAGUE: Whole community lifted as St Helens become champions of inaugural Super League in convincing fashion
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The Independent Online
St Helens 66 Warrington 14

The Stones Super League Championship has one thing in common with the plain old Championship that preceded it. It is won by the best team in the land and St Helens did so yesterday in a manner that underlines the fact that, after Wigan's long dominance, that is precisely what they have become.

It would not have been in Saints' nature or traditions to grind out a narrow win to take the title. Instead, they swept aside a Warrington team whose main contribution to proceedings came when their football manager, Alex Murphy, led the guard of honour of the last double-winning Saints of 1966 that welcomed their successors back on to the pitch to receive the trophy.

That set Saints' achievement in its context. Their last Championship was in 1975 and their last double came before England won the World Cup.

"I have told the players that they have made history today," said their coach, Shaun McRae, who walked quietly out at the end of the queue for his turn on the rostrum. "This is the one we have worked for all season."

To take the spoils after so many years of frustration would have been bliss enough for a season's best crowd of more than 18,000. To break Wigan's seven-year sequence in the process was almost an excess of happiness for spectators who chanted: "Hand it over, pie-eaters."

Their captain, Bobbie Goulding, who won two doubles with Wigan, does not believe that such an era of domination will ever be repeated.

"I don't think anyone will ever do that again, but we haven't finished yet - we've still got the Premiership to play for."

Although Warrington have looked a far better team than the one humiliated at Knowsley Road twice last season, and have the prospect of a top-four place to play for themselves, the signs were there from the very first minute that they were not destined to spoil Saints' party.

That was now long it took St Helens to score the first of their 13 tries, Karle Hammond releasing Joey Hayes down the right. The young winger had the presence of mind when his way was blocked to kick high towards the Warrington sticks, where Tommy Martyn leapt above Mark Forster and Ian Knott to take the ball on his finger-tips and score.

Significantly, a similar chance for Warrington produced a disallowed try five minutes later, Richard Henare knocking the ball forward before Paul Hulme touched down.

Saints immediately made the most of their escape, Alan Hunte's break taking them to the other end of the field and long passes from Goulding and Chris Joynt opening the way for Anthony Sullivan.

Saints' back-line pyrotechnics barely failed to take the eye, but much of their success this season has also been due to the power and penetration of their forwards.

Apollo Perelini, surely the best prop in Britain, provided a perfect example, battering his way through a series of tackles to stretch a defence which could not regroup in time when Martyn's pass sent Paul Newlove striding in. Warrington's only success in the first half came when Paul Sculthorpe chipped ahead, Steve Prescott failed to pick up the ball on the bounce and Forster kicked ahead twice to score.

It never threatened to interrupt Saints' flow, Newlove charging through again to establish the position and Joynt and Keiron Cunningham linking to send in Hunt.

Newlove is playing with pain-killing injections in his foot, but all the pain yesterday was inflicted by him. It was not so much a question of whether Saints would score again, but how; in the event, they did so through Newlove scooping up Martyn's pass.

Warrington should have had one other try, Henare going over the line after splendid approach work from Kelly Shelford and Toa Kohe-Love, but Sullivan demonstrated Saints' ferocious enthusiasm by chasing back and clattering him over before he could ground the ball.

There were no such errors from Saints as they claimed their sixth try three minutes before half-time, thanks to Goulding's precise cross-kick and Martyn's slipped pass to Sullivan.

Saints continued in this carefree mode in the second half, Hunt, Derek McVey and Sullivan all going through increasingly token Warrington resistance.

Henare did get over in the corner for the visitors, but the game was already far down the road of too many this season, with one defence virtually ceasing to operate.

Worse than that, Warrington presented Hunt and Goulding with further tries from farcical interceptions. Mateaki Mafi managed another little gesture for a club which is kidding itself if it honestly believes it can field a better team without Iestyn Harris, but Hayes and Adam Fogerty completed the rout.

Having completed the Cup and League double, Saints now start their bid for a treble with a Premiership semi-final against the London Broncos, secured in fourth place by Warrington's defeat, next Sunday. London have to hope that this week's partying will take its toll - nothing else seems likely to stop Saints in this mood.

That mood extends far beyond the team and into the town itself. "This is a great example of how sport can lift a community," Saints' chief executive, David Howes, said . "This is a town that has suffered economically, and this is its biggest shot in its arm for decades."

McRae, surely on his way to being offered the freedom of the place, admitted that he had not realised how much it meant to the town until the morning of the match. "I went out for a paper and I was being stopped all the time. I was even stopped by a police car. I thought I was in strife for a moment, but they only wanted an autograph," he said.

McRae had undeniably put his mark on this season, already one full of significant departures for the game of Rugby League. If the overall success of Super League is still a matter for debate, in St Helens the change has all been for the better.

St Helens: Prescott; Hayes, Hunte, Newlove, Sullivan; Martyn, Goulding; Perelini, Cunningham, Fogerty, Joynt, Morley, Hammond. Substitutes used: Haigh, Matautia, Pickavance, McVey.

Warrington: Knott; Forster, Kohe-Love, Roper, Henare; Shelford, Swann; Jones, Watson, Chambers, Hulme, Cullen, Sculthorpe. Substitutes used: Rudd, Mafi, Finau, Davies.

Referee: D Campbell (Widnes).