St Helens stay cool to reach Wembley

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The Independent Online
St Helens 24 Widnes 14

St Helens moved a step closer to their manifest destiny of a first Silk Cut Challenge Cup for 20 years with a hard-won semi-final victory over dogged opposition.

The knowledge that the absence of Wigan gives them their best chance for a generation is both an inspiration and a trap for Saints. On the one hand, it should make them impossible to throw off the scent of Wembley. But, St Helens being St Helens, it also makes them even more vulnerable to all the pitfalls that could prevent them getting there.

At Central Park on Saturday, without ever quite approaching their most irresistible form, they avoided those pitfalls. Always a gear sharper than Widnes, they kept their nerve when sheer persistence repeatedly brought their opponents back into contention. In its way, that was more convincing evidence of St Helens being ready to go all the way at last than a dazzling romp would have been.

Widnes, despite one brilliant display in the Regal Trophy, when they deserved to but narrowly failed to beat Wigan, are a team with obvious limitations.

The way they stuck to their task on Saturday, however, reflected enormous credit on them. They were never going to derail Saints' Wembley express, but they ensured that their was no champagne in the buffet car.

St Helens had to work for it. Their forwards - apart from some fierce running and crunching tackles from Apollo Perelini - were never able to dominate Widnes' tradesmen.

Their potentially devastating back line, though, always looked likely to rip their opponents apart and this is the element of their side that looks tailor-made for Wembley.

Saints had pace to burn with Anthony Sullivan and, before he limped off with an ankle injury, Alan Hunte. Scott Gibbs was all power and purpose in the centres, alongside Paul Newlove, who did everything but score.

Making the bullets for them to fire, Bobbie Goulding earned a warm tribute from his coach, Shaun McRae, who had criticised him after the previous round's victory at Salford. "He really knuckled down and played everything the way we have spoken about playing it," he said. "He was superb."

St Helens: Prescott; Hunte (Veivers, 62), Gibbs, Newlove, Sullivan; Hammond, Goulding; Perelini, Cunningham, Leatham (Matautia, 64), Joynt, Booth, Northey.

Widnes: Spruce; Devereux, Pechey, Wright, Thorniley (Cassidy, 25); Tyrer, Cooper; Makin (Myler, 65), Gartland, Hansen, P Hulme, Myler (D Hulme, 29), McCurrie.

Referee: R Smith (Castleford).