St Helens and Warrington will clash in a major final for the first time next month, after the runaway Super League leaders came through an almighty test from the part-time side Halifax to book their place in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley next month.
Saints were expected by many to overpower their part-time opponents for the entirety of the contest – and the numbers going into the game suggested that was a fair assumption. St Helens, with a team full of internationals, spend more than five times what Halifax do on player salaries.
Most of Halifax’s team spent Friday climbing scaffolding and plastering houses while Saints prepared for the game. But, in a thoroughly entertaining first half at least, Halifax were very much the equal of a side now another step closer to a domestic treble.
However, the gulf in quality between the two sides proved decisive in the end, with three second-half tries seeing Saints home.
It means they will head to Wembley for the first time since 2008 to face a Warrington side who were there 12 months ago, when they were defeated by Catalans Dragons. It is remarkable that the two sides, who have been mainstays in finals for years, have never gone head-to-head with a piece of silverware on the line before.
While there was never any doubt of that record continuing beyond this game, Halifax made sure Saints had to work hard to make their superiority tell during an engrossing opening half. The favourites could muster only a penalty from the boot of Danny Richardson in the first half-hour, with the former St Helens youngster Steve Tyrer responding for Halifax.
With half-time approaching Halifax had kept the contest level but it was perhaps no surprise when Saints’ go-to maestro on so many occasions helped put them ahead. With the Fax defence switching off at the ruck, James Roby burrowed his way over to create an advantage that, inevitably, they would not surrender after the break.
It took them seven minutes of the second half to extend their lead when Dominique Peyroux wriggled his way through to touch down and, with Richardson converting to make it 14-2, it looked as though the floodgates were set to open. Yet time and again Halifax denied their opponents through sheer effort.
Saints eventually killed the game as a contest when Jonny Lomax finished a marvellous team move for their third try. There was again a danger that the part-timers would collapse but instead, more than once, they came close to reducing the deficit. Although they were not able to give their fans something else to cheer, their defensive efforts in the final minutes were hugely commendable with their line breached only once more in the final quarter when a clever kick from Roby found its way through a tiring defence to enable Theo Fages to score.
Full-time brought with it the usual celebrations from the Saints supporters, who are heading to Wembley again at long last, but both sets of players left the field with heads held high.
Warrington v St Helens
24 August 3pm, BBC One