Cunningham happy to win ugly

Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham
Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham
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Keiron Cunningham was happy to see his side “win ugly” after they moved to within 80 minutes of a trip to Wembley.

Saints let slip an 18-6 lead against Widnes and were staring at an exit from the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup as they fell 20-18 behind early in the second half.

But, inspired by captain Jon Wilkin, the Super League champions finished strongly, scoring three tries in the final quarter to clinch a 36-20 quarter-final success and they will now play holders Leeds for a place in the August 29 final.

“It wasn’t the greatest performance but sometimes you have just got to win ugly and that’s what we did,” Cunningham said.

“I actually thought Widnes did a great job and they played the referee better than we did. We got mugged in the ruck and we didn’t respond to that.

“We were always on the back foot and, although we scored some great tries, it burns your energy.

“We hung in there really well. If they hadn’t scored before half-time I think it would have been a different game but we made a bit of a meal of the start of the second half.

“All credit to my halves and Jon Wilkin, the people who get the ball in their hands the most, they really brought us on well and that final 30 minutes up with the best we’ve played this season.

“We were prepared to roll our sleeves up and get in a real good arm wrestle. We completed 13 sets in a row. That’s what wins you Challenge Cup games. It was a real captain’s knock from Jon Wilkin.”

It was a familiar feeling for Widnes coach Denis Betts after a third close-fought defeat of the season to St Helens.

With skipper Kevin Brown at the heart of their attack, the Vikings turned the tie on its head with three tries in a 16-minute spell either side of half-time through threequarters Danny Craven, Patrick Ah Van and Chris Dean.

But hopes of a second successive semi-final appearance were dashed as the visitors tired towards the end.

“Everybody knows the final scoreline is harsh but that can happen,” Betts said. “I thought it was a great cup tie but it’s small margins, we’re just falling the wrong side of some really tight games. It’s the story of my year.

“It was a high tempo , high-energy game, and there were a couple of real tight calls that put us under pressure.

“We were an inch away from two tries in the first half.

“It’s tough to take but I’m really proud of the players.”

Makeshift full-back Mark Percival scored two of St Helens’ six tries, the second after he was forced to undergo checks for concussion following a head knock.

“I couldn’t get him back on the field quick enough,” Cunningham said.

“He’s not played full-back since junior level and he was probably thankful for the 15-minute break. But he did a great job and he topped it off with a nice try at the end.”

Percival became Saints’ sixth-choice full-back in the absence of injured trio Jonny Lomax, Shannon McDonnell and Tom Makinson and retired duo Lance Hohaia and Paul Wellens but Cunningham says the club are close to securing a replacement from Australia.

“We’ve got someone ready to come and I’m sure there’s going to be an announcement pretty soon. But he’s coming from the other side of the world so he’s got to get a visa.”

Meanwhile, Widnes will send Brown for scans on a ankle injury with Betts keeping his fingers crossed for good news of his inspirational stand-off.

“He played for 65 minutes on one leg and came up with a great contribution,” Betts said. “He’ll have a scan tomorrow and hopefully it’s nothing.”