Comeback earns deserved draw

Saints v Wigan at the Millennium Stadium
Saints v Wigan at the Millennium Stadium

IT looked mission impossible - trailing 16-0 with the clock having past the hour mark, Saints appeared to be dead and buried and clutching at straws as they desperately sought to produce that little bit of Millennium Magic to spare their blushes against defending champions Wigan.

But they conjured-up three tries in a mind-boggling late phase of their opening fixture in engage Super League XVI to earn a share of the spoils.

And it was no more than they deserved to compensate for the first-half chances they tossed away like confetti at a church wedding.

At the same time, Saints had a golden opportunity to wrap up a totally unexpected victory, only for scrum-half Kyle Eastmond to slot a last-gasp drop goal attempt narrowly wide.

Just 90 seconds earlier, Wigan’s Sam Tomkins had also banged a more difficult drop goal effort just off target as last year’s Grand Finalists battled tooth and nail to establish an early-season psychological advantage over the other.

It was a riveting finale for the 30,000 fans inside Wales’ national stadium.

But on the evidence of this encounter, both teams looked far from the finished article – Saints still needing to work overtime on improving their defence, and Wigan facing questions their inability to polish off the opposition when having them on the ropes, and a tendency to concede silly and needless penalities.

Saints boss Royce Simmons, who had only just returned home from Australia following the passing of his father.

Describing it as the worst week of his life, he added: “When you lose your best mate, it’s tough.

“I missed two training sessions, but my staff were fantastic and the players responded.

“It was a point gained rather than one lost after we had been so far behind early in the second half.

“We didn’t play the smartest football in the world by any means, but it was a courageous effort all the same.

“We didn’t give in and I knew my lads were very fit – this stood us in good stead.

“Some of the forwards were tremendous, and I thought James Roby was fantastic.”

Roby – taking over the mantle of Keiron Cunningham – was an inspirational figure as Saints dominated most of the first-half exchanges without being able to turn their territorial supremacy into richly-deserved points.

During this period, Jonny Lomax, substititute Paul Clough, Ade Gardner, James Graham, Roby and Michael Shenton all came close to scoring – the latter breaking the try-line only for his effort to be ruled out for a knock-on by subsitute Andrew Dixon earlier in the move.

Yet in two of their isolated first-half raids, Wigan established a rather flattering 12-point advantage.

New boy Ryan Hoffman celebrated his debut with a 10th-minute touchdown in the left-hand corner, after a quality handling movement involving skipper Sean O’Loughlin twice, George Carmont,Thomas Leuluai, Sam Tomkins and Josh Charnley,

The try, which Paul Deacon goaled, oozed sheer class, but Warriors’ second, just short of the half-hour mark, was the result of shambolic Saints defending close to their line.

Sam Tomkins’ high kick led to confusion between full-back Paul Wellens and winger Francis Meli, with neither taking command of the situation, and as the ball bounced between them, a grateful Harrison Hansen picked up possession and strolled over the line.

With Deacon having departed suffering from concussion, Sam Tomkins stepped up to slot over the extras.

But he was unable to repeat the feat nine minutes into the second half when George Carmont completed a four-man move to give the defending champions what appeared an unassailable lead.

But Saints are never more dangerous than when the odds are stacked heavily against them – and even the withdrawal of joint skipper Wellens with a rib injury failed to shake their belief that they could produce an Houdini-style escape act.

Not surprisingly, it was Roby who lit the touch paper to a stunning comeback – his deft handling skills creating an opening for the supporting Wilkin to roar over the whitewash in the 61st minute.

Jamie Foster, who had taken over Wellens’ full-back role, landed the conversion, and all of a sudden the Wigan defence, which had looked rock solid all night, began to crumble.

Tony Puletua reduced the daylight between the two sides further with 10 minutes remaining, showing great upper body strength to twist his way over.

And with Foster tagging on the extra, the final result was now in the melting pot.

Saints, in fact, looked the more likely to emerge triumphant at this stage and when Eastmond, Wilkin and Lomax paved the way for Meli to outsmart a leg-weary Wigan defence and score in the left-hand corner to level matters, anything was possible.

It left Foster facing an extremely difficult left touchline kick to give Saints the lead for the first time, and it drifted harmlessly wide, setting the stage for what turned out to be a dramatic and nerve-shredding finale to day one of Millennium Magic.

In the end neither side managed to claim early-season local bragging rights – and on reflection, that was probably how it should be.