Saints' day of shame

Rugby League: Wigan 58 St Helens 4
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The Independent Online
Rugby League

DAVE HADFIELD

Wigan 58 St Helens 4

One of the game's most cherished traditions came to a sorry and sordid end when St Helens included only one regular first-team player and made a mockery of the final Boxing Day meeting between these oldest and proudest of rivals.

St Helens have a Regal Trophy semi-final against Warrington on Saturday and have already cried foul over the fixture planning. But that is no excuse for what they did yesterday; if the has any integrity it will fine them at least as much as they stand to gain from the Regal Trophy - and more for good measure.

Oldham have already been given a suspended fine of pounds 4,000 for fielding a far less blatantly weakened side against Warrington earlier this season. That should be made to look like chicken-feed by a punishment to fit St Helens' crime in this match.

That is not to say that a side featuring four debutants at the start, with three more on the bench, failed to do its best. There are good players in St Helens' Alliance and Academy sides, but to throw them into the cauldron like this shows not only a cynical disregard for their welfare, but also something close to contempt for a near-20,000 crowd.

David Howes, the St Helens chief executive, tried manfully to defend the indefensible. "We have flagged up the fact for a couple of days that we had injury problems, so it is not a case of fielding a weakened side at the last minute," he said.

"That was our strongest available side and we are happy to stand by it. We have medical evidence on all the players missing today, which we will be happy to produce if the League requires us to do so."

It is virtually certain that the League will want them to do just that. Medical certificates cannot be a complete answer because, by this stage of the season, any rugby league player not carrying an ailment that would earn a normal man a sick-note has not been doing his job.

The upshot of this travesty was that Wigan established a record for points in a match against St Helens, although that should perhaps be regarded as the equivalent of wind-assisted. The win also leaves them needing three points from their four remaining matches to clinch the Stones Centenary Championship, although this was a wholly unsatisfactory way of moving a step closer to that goal.

It seemed in the early stages as though Wigan were entering into the perverted spirit of the occasion by performing as if they were Alliance and Academy players. But once Jason Robinson went in for their first try after 14 minutes, a steady procession of points was assured.

Few will remember at the end of his career that Scott Quinnell's four tries came against a shadow of a Saints side. Perhaps one player still looks very much the same to him as another, because he was one individual intent on taking the opposition seriously.

The St Helens supporters, arguably the real victims of this charade, went very quiet when the teams were announced, and were only heard from again when Danny Arnold caught Martin Offiah. The cheer when Simon Booth scored their try early in the second half was only slightly louder.

It is a tribute to the passion aroused by any game between these teams that the home fans treated this match as strictly legitimate. There were even some robotic chants of "easy, easy..." as though beating St Helens' reserves is meant to be difficult.

The latter stages turned into a back-row benefit as Simon Haughton and Mick Cassidy scored two tries apiece before Quinnell completed his collection. There will be no such pleasant memories for Neil Cowie, sent off for punching after a brawl that was just about the only thing that could further disfigure the occasion. The Wigan coach, Graeme West, described himself as "very disappointed" with him.

Everyone else at Central Park had the right to be bitterly disappointed with St Helens' shoddy approach. The joke, worthy of the cheapest Christmas crackers, is that it is Saints who want to preserve Boxing Day matches after the switch to summer rugby. The team-sheet they posted at 2.30 yesterday was hardly much of an advert for that scheme, or for the ethics of the game as a whole.

Wigan: Connolly (Craig, 73); Robinson, Tuigamala, Radlinski, Offiah; Paul (Smyth, h-t), Edwards; Cowie, Hall, O'Connor (Johnson, h-t), Quinnell, Cassidy, Haughton (Dermott, 60).

St Helens: Arnold; Riley, Haigh, O'Loughlin, Prescott; Waring, Veivers; Leatham, G Cunningham, Devine, Anderson (Mathison, 32), Anderson, 65), Morley (Sheil, h-t), Booth.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

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