Saints’ hopes of reaching the semi-final stage of the Super 8s hangs by a thread.
Neighbours Wigan Warriors put the cat among the pigeons with their hard-earned and well-merited 26-16 victory at the Totally Wicked Stadium, climbing to fifth place in the table and at the same time relegating St Helens to sixth spot
Head coach Justin Holbrook admits it’s now a case of win or bust in their final three fixtures - trips to Wakefield Trinity, currently holding on to a top four place, and Salford City Reds and a home game against eighth-placed Huddersfield Giants.
But results in the Super 8s have been so unpredictable this year that, while runaway leaders Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos have already qualified for the sudden death showdown, several other scenarios are still possible in the race to join them.
Wigan could, so to speak, sneak in by the back door and are coming up on the rails like a high speed train.
They are proving to be a dangerous animal as they seek to erase the memories of their Challenge Cup defeat against Hull FC, who are themselves top four contenders, and also retain their Grand Final crown.
They certainly didn’t suffer from a king-sized Wembley hangover on Friday night, hitting shell-shocked Saints with 14 unanswered points in the opening quarter of an hour and putting down a marker for the rest of a feisty, no holds barred encounter, but one often marred by some questionable decisions from referee Robert Hicks who will have had better days at the office
The hosts, however, had their chances to get back on the horse after two successive defeats, particularly in a rip-roaring second half, but the extra finesse needed to unlock the Cherry and Whites rock solid defence was missing and they paid the ultimate penalty.
Aussie Ben Barba made his much-heralded debut after 10 months on the side lines following a 12-game NRL drugs ban but in the circumstances it was too much to ask him to immediately wave a magic wand and sprinkle stardust on such a high octane derby - even though he scored Saints’ only first half try.
Holbrook said: ‘’I thought Ben played well but you have got to remember he hadn’t played competitively for a long time.
‘’He worked hard for 80 minutes and he’ll be much better for the run.’’
He added: ‘’ We didn’t make a great start but I thought we recovered well. We clawed our way back but missed a few chances towards the end of the first half which hurt us in the end.’’
The Saints’ boss also started with four forwards on the bench but must have wrestled with the idea of handing one of the shirts to either Danny Richardson , or Theo Fages, who have been in fine form of late, and in hindsight it might have been a better option.
Saints tries: Barba, Taia, Makinson. Goals: Percival (2/ 3).
Wigan tries: Gildart (2), Gelling, Williams. Goals: Wiliams (5/6)
Attendance: 15, 248
Teams - Saints: Barba,, Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Grace, Lomax, Smith Amor, Roby, Thompson, Taia, Wilkin, Knowles,. Subs: Walmsley McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Peyroux..
Wigan Warriors: Tomkins (S.) Marshall, Gelling, Gildart, Burgess, Williams, Leulai, Nu’uausala, Mcllorum, Clubb, Bateman, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Subs: Powell, Tautai, Isa, Wells. On report: Isa (27mins) and sin-binned (79 mins).