The eagerly anticipated Betfred Challenge Cup Final saw St Helens and the Castleford Tigers meet for the very first time in the showpiece final as the two sides ran out into a crowded and sweltering Wembley for what promised to be a fascinating match.
There is currently a gulf between the two sides in league position with the Tigers having had a torrid time in recent weeks with some awful results while Saints haven’t lost for a month and have a recent 24-0 over their opponents tucked under their belt.
But this is Wembley, and this is the Challenge Cup Final, and it usually throws up surprises and shocks despite St Helens being massive favourites for the win.
Castleford had to defend hard early on after conceding a penalty, a set restart, and a knock-on to a rampaging St Helens. It took ten minutes for Saints to snatch the lead and it also required a bit of good fortune when a Jonny Lomax grubber kick rebounded off the post pad and into the hands of Theo Fages to slide in for the four-pointer. Lachlan Coote added the conversion from in front of the sticks.
Against the run of play the Tigers equalised with Niall Evalds being on hand to collect a Peter Mata’utia grubber kick and run in by the sticks in a move which was started around the half-way line. Gareth O’Brien added the conversion to level things up at 6-6.
On twenty-four minutes the Tigers hit the front as Jake Trueman collected a high O’Brien kick under the stick and take two strides to score under the sticks. O’Brien added the kick for a 12-6 lead, with even the most dedicated Tigers fan having to admit it was totally against the run of play.
Taking the lead gave the Tigers a real belief and it was they who ended the half on the attack to take a six-point lead into the interval.
Joe Batchelor lasted twenty-five seconds of the second half before going into the tackle badly and coming off for a head impact assessment but within a minute James Roby was on hand to take the pass after a high kick to the corner was batted back by Regan Grace. Coote added the extras and the two sides were back level at 12-12 on forty-three minutes.
Saints were back in the lead on fifty after a flying Tommy Makinson found space down the right wing to sprint the last ten metres and then launch himself for the line to ground. Coote couldn’t add the touchline conversion, the Saints with just a four-point lead.
Roby knocked on a kick through on fifty-seven, fifteen out from his own sticks but brilliant Saints defence kept the Tigers out.
A Mata’utia obstruction was spotted by the referee and Coote took the opportunity to extend the lead to six points on sixty-five, the cup within Saints grasp. When the Tigers were given offside on seventy, Coote kicked another two-pointer for 20-12, the engraver was starting his afternoons work.
The icing of the cake came in the seventy-eighth minute when Kyle Amor crashed the line and grounded under the uprights after palming off the challenges of three Castleford tacklers. Coote added the conversion to seal a 26-12 win, the Saints scoring twenty unanswered second half points.
This was not a classic St Helens performance as Castleford made them grind out every point. They also got the rub of the green with some of the refereeing decision, but few would argue that that they weren’t the best team on the afternoon and deserving of their first Challenge Cup final win since 2008. Castleford have now gone thirty-five years without lifting the cup as their wait goes on after today's heartbreak.
St Helens: Coote (5G), Makinson (T), Naiqama, Percival, Grace, Lomax, Fages (T), Walmsley, Roby (T), McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Thompson, Batchelor, Knowles. Subs: Amor (T), Paasi, Welsby, Lee.
Castleford Tigers: Evalds (T), Turner, Shenton, Mata’utia, Olpherts, Trueman (T), O’Brien (2G), Millington, McShane, Griffin, Holmes, Sene-Lefao, Massey. Subs: Watts, Milner, Foster, Smith.
Referee: Liam Moore.
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 6-4, 6-6, 6-10, 6-12 : HT : 10-12, 12-12, 16-12, 18-12, 20-12, 24-12, 26-12 : FT.