St Helens were once more denied a chance to wrap up the League Leaders’ Shield after going down to a 17-16 defeat in a nail-biting Super League clash at Huddersfield.
Beaten 39-12 at home by Warrington a week ago, Saints were thwarted this time by coach Nathan Brown’s former club, who clinched a top-four finish thanks to Leroy Cudjoe’s drop goal 10 minutes from the end.
Friday night’s epic victory was celebrated by the sprinkling of Castleford fans among the 7,244 crowd at the John Smith’s Stadium, for the result means that the Tigers, watching on from their hotel in Perpignan, can now finish top of the league for the first time in their 88-year history.
Castleford will achieve that feat if they beat Catalan Dragons in their final fixture of the regular season on Saturday evening.
Saints had only themselves to blame for letting slip a 10-0 lead as they went on to play most of the match with 12 men following the dismissal of prop Alex Walmsley for a high and late tackle on Huddersfield scrum-half Luke Robinson.
Saints had looked the more cohesive unit in the opening quarter, with hooker James Roby at the heart of their promising moves while Huddersfield relied largely on individual forays in the absence of skipper Danny Brough and Scott Grix, as well as prop Eorl Crabtree.
It was Roby who made the first telling contribution, darting into space from dummy half, and his offload created the space for Jordan Turner, Willie Manu and Mark Percival to work leading try-scorer Tom Makinson over at the corner after 21 minutes.
England international Roby then started and finished a sparkling move to score St Helens’ second try just three minutes later and Percival’s conversion made it 10-0.
The League Leaders’ Shield looked to be on its way to Langtree Park at that stage but the visitors were reduced to 12 men four minutes later when Walmsley was shown the red card for his ugly challenge on Robinson.
It was also a blow for the Giants as they lost another key playmaker but they rose to the challenge and got themselves back in the game before half-time.
Substitute forward Ukuma Ta’ai charged to the line only to be held up on his back, but there was no stopping makeshift stand-off Jake Connor four minutes before the break when he got a touch to his own grubber kick for Huddersfield’s first try and his goal cut the gap to just four points.
It was all square within 90 seconds of the re-start when another barnstorming run from Ta’ai created the position for hooker Shaun Lunt to dart over from dummy half, and Connor’s second goal edged the home side in front.
The game was held up for a lengthy stoppage to allow St Helens’ former Huddersfield winger Matty Dawson to receive treatment on the field after taking a blow to the head before being carried off on a stretcher, but the momentum was clearly with the Yorkshiremen.
The ever-dangerous Ta’ai took Lunt’s pass to reach the line, only to lose the ball trying to ground it, and it was no surprise when the Giants extended their lead, although the try came gift-wrapped by their visitors.
Saints skipper Paul Wellens dropped Mark Flanagan’s pass 40 metres out from his own line and centre Cudjoe picked up the loose ball and sprinted over for his side’s third try.
St Helens might have folded at that point but their response was immediate. Huddersfield were forced to scramble to halt a clean break down the middle by forward Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook but could not re-group in time to prevent stand-off Lance Hohaia going through a gap on the next play.
Percival’s second conversion levelled the scores and that set the scene for a pulsating final quarter.
Connor’s drop-goal attempt was charged down but Huddersfield regained the ball courtesy of the resulting drop-out and at the end of the next set of tackles, Cudjoe coolly slotted the ball between the posts for a one-pointer.
The home side were forced into some desperate defence as St Helens launched a series of attacks and Hohaia had a chance to snatch an all-important point with a drop-goal attempt, but his kick went wide and Turner, too, was off target with a similar effort a minute from the end.