The Mend-a-Hose Jungle was packed to the rafters as the Champions elect Castleford Tigers looked to sweep aside the challenge of fourth placed St Helens in the first Grand Final semi-final.
The prize was a place in next Saturdays showpiece event at Old Trafford in the Grand Final, for the losers, an end to their 2017 season. With no one giving Saints a prayer of victory there would be no shame for the visitors but a loss for the all-conquering Tigers would be a disaster.
Saints did have history on their side, despite being outsiders for the win, as they were one of the few sides to beat the Tigers on their home turf in 2017 with a 26-12 win back at the start of August.
There were just forty-eight seconds on the clock when Zak Hardaker spun out of a tackle after being fed from the back of a scrum, brought about from a Ben Barba dropped ball. The ground erupted as the Tigers full-back dived in, and echoed the noise a minute later when Luke Gale kicked the games first conversion.
On seven, the Tigers added two to their total through a Gale penalty from twelve metres.
On sixteen minutes the Saints got back into the game when Regan Grace flew over in the corner off a miss-out pass as Saints fast hands moved the ball from under the sticks to the left wing. Mark Percival pulled his conversion wide of the uprights.
After the very early Castleford dominance Saints had not taken long to get into their stride and rather than a walkover for the Tigers the game was developing into an intrigueing encounter.
Both sides had tries turned down by the referee, and confirmed as ‘NO TRY’ by the video official and the Saints defence held firm against a creative Tigers attack.
On thirty-seven Morgan Knowles took an inside pass off James Roby to crash through a big gap in the Tigers defence and score by the upright. Percival kicked the conversion to edge the visitors into a two point lead which they held to the interval.
The second half was sixteen minutes old when the Tigers regained the lead after Luke Gale, a fortnight back from having his appendix removed, took a pass from Greg Eden to go down the left wing and dive over in the corner. Gale converted his own try from near the touchline for 14-10.
A superb last ditch tackle by Adam Milner on Tommy Makinson saved a certain Saints try on sixty-two as he dragged the winger into touch. Within seconds Paul McShane kicked a forty-twenty and three tackles in Adam Milner turned defence into attack as he crashed through the Saints defence to ground by the left upright. Gale added the conversion for a ten point lead leaving Saints with a mountain to climb.
Two consecutive sets on the Tigers line resulted in a Tommy Makinson try as he took a miss-out pass to burrow under the Castleford defence and stretch to ground one-handed. Percival failed to add the extras, skewing the ball in front of the uprights. Saints were back within six points with nine minutes left on the clock.
On seventy-three the Saints were within two when Mark Percival took a Barba tackle, put his shoulder into the tackler and span over the line to score a crucial try. The Saints centre pushed his conversion wide of the far upright and left his side two points behind. Nails for both sets of supporters were being bitten to the quick.
A sensational St Helens try grabbed them the lead with under three minutes remaining. Saints never say die attitude saw them score a fifty metres try through half a dozen pairs of hands with James Roby putting Ryan Morgan over in the right hand corner. Percival missed another conversion, his fourth miss of the night and Saints were ahead by just two points.
Thirty seconds from time and Ryan Morgan obstructed a chasing Ryan Shenton ten out from the Saints line. Luke Gale called for the tee and slotted over the goal to tie up the sides at 22-22 and herald Golden Point extra time.
Saints opted to receive the kick-off but didn’t make enough ground for a drop-goal. The Tigers worked downfield on their first set but Gale missed a drop-goal attempt from forty-five metres. Matty Smith was next up with a goal chance but scuffed his effort dead. The hero of the night was Luke Gale who kicked a forty metre drop-goal effort to win the game and send his side to Old Trafford.
It was a quality match between two great sets of players, neither of which deserved to be on the losing side. Saints defence was nothing short on sensational as they withstood the Tigers onslaught and they managed to score on the counter. The Tigers are a delight to watch and give the ball air at every opportunity.
Nerves on both sides were shredded as the game entered Golden Point extra time, but all credit to the Tigers and Gale for holding their nerve when it really mattered. Few will argue that the Tigers deserved to get to Old Trafford on their seasons performance but Saints were worthy oppposition on the night.