CHEERFUL Keighley fans, resplendent in Paul March face-masks and singing ‘The Bulls are going bust’ outside beforehand, was the first sign the huge underdogs were in Widnes solely for a good time last night.
They were not expecting any Challenge Cup shocks and were certainly not as optimistic as the local highways agency which had signs en route to the former Naughton Park declaring there could be heavy traffic due to this quarter-final tie.
In fairness, given the competition has struggled for crowds of late, an attendance of 5,252 was not a bad return as Widnes moved to within just 80 minutes of their first Challenge Cup final since 1993.
Keighley, the Championship part-timers whose player-coach March watched in the Cricketers’ Arms pub around the corner due to his two-month stadium ban for abusing a match official, will have to wait a bit longer for any potential return to Wembley.
Their only previous Challenge Cup final was prior to the Second World War in 1937 and ended in an 18-5 defeat, ironically, to Widnes.
There was never any danger of the scoreline being as close last night considering March made no less than 11 changes to the side which started in Sunday’s defeat against Halifax.
Given the West Yorkshire club are in action again at Whitehaven on Tuesday and avoiding relegation this season is their priority – they are currently five points clear – the former Huddersfield Giants half-back made the decision to rest numerous players.
Widnes, who had the likes of ex-England internationals Kevin Brown and Danny Tickle in their ranks plus the dynamic full-back Rhys Hanbury, were 22-0 ahead inside just 17 minutes.
But Keighley, to their credit, never let up and, for all the obvious gulf in class, were rewarded with a try early in the second half when Daley Williams cut a perfect angle onto Ben Stead’s cute shimmy and pass.
It was Stead, the young scrum-half playing only his second first team game for his home-town club, who converted and then delivered a perfect 40/20 kick in the next set to really get Keighley’s travelling support vocal.
There was no fairytale comeback, however, as Tom Gilmore raced over for his second try soon after and then Keighley were fortunate to remain at 12 men when Josh Lynam caught Danny Craven with a high tackle as the Widnes replacement threatened to jink into open space.
That caused a minor kerfuffle between the two sides, but the incident was not placed on report and Craven showed no ill-effects as he weaved over for Widnes’s ninth try moments later.
Gilmore then finished off his hat-trick of tries after another sweeping break from deep, and Jack Owens kicked the last of his five goals.
Brown had been the main thorn in Keighley’s side as they struggled to cope, not just with the sheer power of the majority of their Super League opponents, but his vast guile and invention.
Given his excellence this term, there was some surprise when the former Huddersfield Giants stand-off was not recalled to Steve McNamara’s England squad this week after a four-year absence.
The 29-year-old was central to most of their tries until being taken off after Gilmore’s second in the 53rd minute, much to the relief of Keighley’s perplexed and jaded players.
Declan Hulme had started the one-sided destruction inside two minutes, quickly followed by Gilmore’s first after Tickle’s short pass had exposed Keighley’s middle to send Alex Gerrard racing away.
Brown burrowed over from dummy-half – showing he can do scrappy as well as silky – and then strode into space with a splendid break which saw him round Jesse Sheriffe with ease for his second, Tickle adding his third conversion.
It was Brown’s lofted kick to the corner that furnished Owens with his try before Stefan Marsh crossed following another move initiated by the ex-Wigan No 6 to make it 32-0 at the break.
Willie Isa’s try extended that shortly after the restart before Keighley had their brief response, but their real battle lies ahead.
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury; Owens, Dean, Marsh, Hulme; Brown, Gilmore; Clough, White, Gerrard, Tickle, Galea, Leuluai. Substitutes: Craven, Isa, Kavanagh, Allen.
Keighley Cougars: Sheriffe; Lawton, Williams, Graham, Duffy; Kelly, Stead; Law, Lee, Peltier, Eccleston, Pursglove, Sagar. Substitutes: Haigh, Patchett, Cherryholme, Lynam.
Referee: J Child (RFL)