Saints blow away play-off opponents Warrington in an eventful contest. Here’s our verdict…
Warrington started the game on the front foot but the first points went to the visitors, after Ben Westwood made a late challenge on Danny Richardson after the scrum-half had put in a kick. Perhaps acknowledging how close the match was likely to be after the dramatic finish in the last meeting at the Totally Wicked Stadium, Richardson, their penalty goal hero then, went for the two points again.
That started a good spell for Saints but a poor set changed that, and a massive hit from Mike Cooper then forced James Bentley to drop the ball on the first tackle. On the last play Tyrone Roberts dinked the ball in behind, with Regan Grace forced to knock it out for a drop out.
It was then that the game really came to life. The first three plays from the drop out all saw massive tackles from the Wolves, and it was the last of those, when Matty Lees’ knee made horrific contact with the head of the falling Roberts, that sparked clashes between the two sets of players. When the scene was calmed, referee Chris Kendall sent Lees to the bin, along with Mark Percival and Ryan Atkins for running in.
That set the scene for ten minutes of intense pressure on the 11-man St Helens, a period in which they did everything in their power to remain unscathed. Jonny Lomax deserved full credit for a brilliant tackle on the considerably larger Ben Murdoch-Masila, denying a try and forcing a knock on as well.
Another smaller man made a massive impact in defence after that when, after Bryson Goodwin had been held up by three defenders over the line, Grace put a big hit on Josh Charnley to prevent a try in the corner, with Stefan Ratchford then driven into touch to finish the job.
However, the pressure finally told as the Wolves went in over in the last action before the three carded men returned. After plenty of brute strength from the two sides it was a nice piece of skill that finally got the hosts over, as Kevin Brown performed a delicious show and go to carve through the Saints line in an instant, for a try converted by Declan Patton in the continued absence of the concussed Roberts.
Warrington thought that they might have had another try minutes later when, after Ratchford had made a good break, Patton slipped a kick in behind and Percival and Atkins chased after it, with the video referee needed to confirm that the only touch was from the St Helens man in knocking it out and saving the try.
That proved a crucial moment, as Saints got on the front foot in the final ten minutes of the half. They couldn’t find a way through after Ben Barba had earned a goal-line drop out, but they did a few minutes later off the back of a penalty for offside when Luke Douglas managed to turn in the tackle and ground the ball, with Richardson converting after the score had been confirmed by the video referee.
Then with a minute left of the half, a two-point lead became six with a classy try. It looked like the chance might have been gone when Jack Ashworth, after brilliantly shrugging off one tackle and stepping round the next, didn’t get the pass away. They moved the ball with devastating speed on the last play though, going left through Barba and Percival for Grace to fly into the corner.
The second half started with the same intensity that the whole of the first had been played with, as Josh Charnley was required to make a stunning try-saving tackle within a minute. At the end of the opening set the ball was knocked backwards by the Wire and Richardson picked up, seeing a gap to fly away into open green grass, but Charnley managed to charge back and make a superb challenge to take him into touch before he made the try-line.
However, that proved to be a sign of things to come in terms of Warrington’s defence, as two tries in three minutes changed the complexion of the game.
The first came from great work by Mark Percival, after the ball was spread to the left edge on the last play. Barba slipped in the centre, who went round the outside of Charnley and got a wonderful offload out the back to Lomax to dive over.
Then Ryan Morgan made a break from deep as the Wolves’ defence looked visibly tired for the first time, and the centre couldn’t be caught before passing outside to Richardson in support to touch down. The scrum-half converted both of those efforts, and suddenly Saints held an 18-point advantage.
More damage was still to come though, with another skilful try from the League Leaders’ Shield winners. After good combination play Lomax passed back inside to Barba, and the full-back did the rest as he shrugged past Ben Westwood and then Atkins to run in for a try that should ensure he finishes as Super League’s top scorer this season.
Each of those shots will have been another hit on Warrington’s confidence ahead of a semi-final rematch in two weeks’ time, but they did well to establish themselves back in the contest and get back on the scoreboard as well. They failed to get through after winning a penalty close to the line, but took advantage of a dropped ball from Richardson as Toby King picked up and charged into the corner.
They almost had another as they kept up the pressure, with Atkins making a good break to start but failing to get the ball away, allowing Barba to recover. Patton’s kick then went towards the corner with Charnley jumping ahead of Grace, but the ball slipped out of his hands just before the winger was able to ground.
With four minutes to go Saints got their final try, and it was Barba who emphasised what St Helens fans will hope is a welcome return to form with a second try of the game. Much of the work was done for him as good passing slipped the ball to him close to the line, but he still had to round Harvey Livett to touch down.
The final word went to the Wolves though with a spectacular consolation. The ball was moved left and Goodwin was slipped in, and the stand-in winger made an extraordinary dive into the corner. The ball looked like it hadn’t been grounded to the naked eye, but the replays showed that he had managed to touch down in goal.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
Worries for Wire
With less than a fortnight to go before the play-off semi-final, Warrington needed a positive result against the League Leaders to boost confidence. Instead, they will go into that game having lost to Saints three times out of three this season, and this one wasn’t even close in the end.
The big issue was in attack as they failed to take a number of chances, particularly when they were well on top of the contest in the first half.
Roberts’ early exit, along with half-back partner Brown later in the first half, didn’t help matters as the Wolves were forced to rejig, while the absence of Daryl Clark was really felt as well.
Saints nearing their best
Momentum is everything going into the play-offs, and St Helens needed a performance like this after a period in which they have failed to hit the heights reached earlier in the season.
On this evidence they look to be back to their best though, with some of the skill on the ball tearing apart the Wolves defence, with half-backs Richardson and Lomax at the heart and the likes of Grace, Percival and Barba all playing their part too.
A winning side needs to be strong in defence as well and Saints certainly were, particularly in that ten minute period when two players were in the bin, and that is another positive that suggests they have everything it takes to make, and win, the Grand Final.
Man of the Match – Jonny Lomax (St Helens)
A number of players in the Saints backline could have taken the award, but Lomax just edges it ahead of Richardson for a brilliant all-round contribution.
He was at the heart of much of what they did well with the ball and registered a try and a great assist, as well as making a brilliant try-saving tackle in the first half to deny Murdoch-Masila.
Warrington Wolves 14
Tries: Brown, King, Goodwin
Drop Goals: n/a
St Helens 34
Tries: Douglas, Grace, Lomax, Richardson, Barba (2)
Goals: Richardson (5)
Drop Goals: n/a
Warrington: Ratchford; Goodwin, T King, Atkins, Charnley; Brown, Roberts; Hill, Patton, Cooper; Murdoch-Masila, Thompson, Westwood.
Interchanges: Philbin, G King, Livett, Smith
St Helens: Barba; Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Richardson; Thompson, Knowles, Lees; Taia, Bentley, Wilkin.
Interchanges: Fages, Douglas, Peyroux, Ashworth.
Referee: Chris Kendall