It was a feast fit to serve before Royalty and Saints’ former king of the 13-a-side code was present to give it his official seal of approval.
Mighty Mal Meninga, who pulled on the famous red vee jersey for one memorable season spanning 1984-85, was an out-of-blue visitor to Good Friday’s derby showdown against arch-rivals Wigan Warriors at the Totally Wicked Stadium and left with a big smile on his face after the hosts had stormed to a 21-14 victory in an epic encounter which ebbed and flowed throughout the full 80 minutes.
No doubt it reminded him of Saints’ performance in the 1984 Lancashire Cup Final against the old enemy at Central Park when he scored two tries himself and masterminded a 26-16 win over the old enemy in front of a spell-bound 26,000 crowd.
Why the 57-year-old Australian national coach suddenly arrived in St Helens over Easter is not crystal clear but maybe be was running the rule over his fellow countryman, Ben Barba, who has been in scintillating form this season, and the full-back didn’t do his chances of an international call up any harm by scoring a breath-taking try to help demolish the boys from the other side of Billinge ‘lump.’
Neither did Saints’ boss Justin Holbrook thrown any further light on why Mal had suddenly arrived on their doorstep, observing: “Obviously everyone in St Helens still talks about him - and he was only here one season.
“To get Mal to attend the game was simply awesome. He had a chance to have a quick chat with the boys before the start of the match and everyone thought it was great to see him.”
Whether his presence acted as a shot of adrenaline to the Saints’ camp is any body’s guess but what emerged on the playing park was one of the most exciting,heart-stopping and dramatic derbies in recent years with both sides having their noses in front during the final 15 minutes and looking on the brink of victory.
In the end Saints held their nerve and probably deserved the points. In fact, Wigan should have been dead and buried by half-time, rather fortuitous to be only 12-2 adrift, but they showed character and came within a whisker of punishing Saints on the resumption
Holbrook said: “I thought it was a superb game and for us to emerge with both points was simply great
“Some people pointed out to me we hadn’t won once in eight years on Good Friday so we’ve ended that hoodoo. It was great for the players, club, the fans and town. I was very proud to watch the boys win today.”
He went on: “Both teams were run off their feet and we just hung on in there. It is hard to single anyone out and there were lots of good performances. It was a cracking game.”
He added: “Towards the back end of the game you could see both teams were out on their feet but I thought there was another try in the game.
“I was really happy with the play – Ryan Morgan made a break down the right to start it off and I think for their instinct to just say play was the right decision.”
But it was Jonny Lomax’s 20 yard pin-point accurate pass into the hands of try scorer Regan Grace which was the icing on the cake. Danny Richardson added a touchline conversion under mounting tension and then added a drop goal two minutes from time to put Saints 21-14 ahead, and although the never-say-die Warriors responded with a try in the 80th minute, it was too little too late.
Saints tries: Barba, Taia, Grace
Goals: Richardson (4/4)
Wigan tries: Tomkins Joel (2), Isa.
Goals: Escare (2/2), Williams (1/2)
Half-time 12-2. Full-time: 21-18
Referee: Robert Hicks. Attendance:17,980
Teams - Saints: 23. Ben Barba; 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 19. Regan Grace; 1. Jonny Lomax, 18. Danny Richardson; 10. Kyle Amor, 9. James Roby, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 11. Zeb Taia, 12. Jon Wilkin.
Subs: 6. Theo Fages, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Morgan Knowles.
Wigan:20. Morgan Escare; 2. Tom Davies, 14. John Bateman, 4. Oliver Gildart, 5. Joe Burgess; 6. George Williams, 7. Sam Powell; 8. Tony Clubb, 9. Thomas Leuluai, 10. Ben Flower, 19. Willie Isa, 12. Liam Farrell, 13. Sean OíLoughlin.
Subs: 11. Joel Tomkins, 15. Ryan Sutton, 17. Taulima Tautai, 34. Josh Woods.