Jon Bennison powers St Helens past battling Salford and into Grand Final


Rugby league immortality is now tantalisingly within reach for St Helens. Never before in the Super League era has a team won four consecutive league titles; in the entire history of the sport, dating all the way back to 1895, it has been achieved only once. There have been occasions this year when one has wondered if the all-conquering Saints would have to settle for three in a row.

But next Saturday at Old Trafford, St Helens will aim to assert their grip on a trophy that they have held for more than 1,000 days. They were made to work incredibly hard by Salford, who were in pursuit of a first league title since the mid-1970s. But in the end, the expected outcome came to fruition and St Helens did what they always seem to do: find a way to win.

It means that this year’s Grand Final has a distinctly familiar feeling, with the fifth meeting of St Helens and Leeds Rhinos in the season’s showpiece event. No two teams have met each other at Old Trafford on more occasions. When they do it again next Saturday, Leeds will be looking for a record ninth Super League title while the Saints will be seeking to create genuine history.

Not even when Jon Bennison became the latest homegrown St Helens star to write his name into the club’s legacy with the winning try seven minutes from time did the result feel secure. That is to the credit of Salford, the competition’s lowest spenders: they more than played their part in an enthralling and entertaining semi-final.

But when the chips fall down in this sport, they often go the way of the Saints. “I’m always confident in this group,” their coach, Kristian Woolf, said. “They turn up and they fight. When they’re under pressure they keep fighting and that’s why they give themselves a chance every week and every game. I couldn’t be prouder of them for what they’ve done the last three or four years.”

They led 13-6 at half-time and appeared in control. Two tries for Joe Batchelor was the least their pressure deserved against Salford, who were without their star half-back, Brodie Croft. They then lost the hooker Andy Ackers to a concussion after only two minutes. At that point a result here, against this St Helens side, looked impossible.

But Salford do not quit. “For us to weather what we did and keep coming back swinging, I’m so proud,” their coach, Paul Rowley, said. Kallum Watkins’s try midway through the first half kept them in contention, and they then rode out more St Helens pressure in the early stages of the second half with commendable spirit and endeavour.

Then, when they hit on the counter through Ryan Brierley’s try, Marc Sneyd’s conversion reduced the gap to one. Suddenly, Jonny Lomax’s drop goal on the stroke of half-time for St Helens began to feel as though it could decide the outcome.

Salford kept coming. On numerous occasions they came desperately close to piercing the St Helens line, but the next time the hosts ventured into Salford territory they struck a decisive blow when Bennison reacted quickest to Lomax’s clever kick.

Even then, with the gap back to seven, Salford did not buckle. They felt aggrieved when Tim Lafai was pulled back as he appeared likely to score; Tommy Makinson was sent to the sin-bin, but there was no penalty try. And eventually, after a ferocious battle, the Saints navigated their way through a choppy final few minutes to move one step closer to securing their place in the sport’s record books.

But whatever happens next weekend, and whether it is the Saints or the Rhinos lifting the Super League trophy, there is history waiting to be made.