AFTER three defeats in Challenge Cup finals, former Castleford Tigers hooker Daryl Clark could have been forgiven for thinking he would never get his hands on the famous trophy.
Instead, while pundits everywhere were writing off Warrington Wolves, Clark had a “good feeling” about their prospects of shocking St Helens at Wembley and that proved prescient as he not only collected his first winner’s medal, but also came away with the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.
A past Man of Steel, Clark had been a Wembley loser with Castleford Tigers in 2014 and Warrington two years later and again last season.
The 26-year-old overshadowed James Roby, who had been tipped as a potential match-winner for Saints, scoring the try which clinched an 18-4 victory with a dart from acting-half seven minutes from time before capping an all action display by jarring the ball from Saints winger Regan Grace’s grasp just short of the line in the final moments.
Afterwards, Clark revealed: “I’ve had a good feeling all week.
“Last year against Catalans we were massive favourites and the way we felt, I think, was a bit arrogant. A few of us thought the job was already done and all we had to do was turn up.
“That massively backfired on us so coming in this time as underdogs we knew we could flip it on its head. Saints were getting all the accolades and we just slid under the radar. We believed in our gameplan and stuck to it and it worked.”
Of his own performance, Clark insisted: “I am just happy to get the win. I have been in three finals before and lost them all and that’s heartbreaking, so to finally win it is special and to pick up the Lance Todd tops it off. It has been a great day.”
Super League’s second-placed team beating the league leaders in a cup final would not normally be regarded as a major upset.
However, considering the circumstances, Warrington’s victory was unexpected. Saints are no ordinary table toppers, being 16 points clear of their nearest rivals.
They had lost only three times previously this season, two of those defeats coming when they sent a depleted team to London Broncos and on top of that, Warrington were struggling for form and without their most influential player, injured stand-off Blake Austin.
Had Saints scored first it might have been a different story, but referee Robert Hicks trusted his own judgement when Morgan Knowles chased Theo Fages kick to Warrington’s in-goal after just two minutes. Hicks had no hesitation in restarting play with a 20-metre tap, but replays suggested Knowles had got the ball down cleanly before it went dead.
It would have been difficult for Warrington to chase the game against a side as good as Saints, but they rode their luck. Tries by Joe Philbin and Ben Murdoch-Masila, both of which Stefan Ratchford converted, made it 12-0 at half-time and though Fages pulled a score back and Tommy Makinson went desperately close, Clark’s touchdown, improved by Dec Patton, sealed it.
Warrington coach Steve Price described his side’s performance as the best since he joined them last year. He said: “It had to be an eight or nine out of 10, but I knew we could turn it on for the big day and the players certainly did that.”
Saints made a string of errors, initially allowing Warrington to gain a foothold in the game and then build a lead which, in sweltering conditions, was never seriously threatened.
Defeated coach Justin Holbrook felt the early incident involving Knowles should have been referred to video referee Ben Thaler, but accepted the best side on the day won.
“It’s a Challenge Cup final and if you get your nose in front on a hot day it’s a different game,” he claimed. “You’d be filthy if that was just a regular round of Super League, but take nothing away from Warrington, they don’t play a part in those things.”
St Helens: Coote, Makinson, Naiqama, Percival, Grace, Lomax, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, Thompson, Taia, Peyroux, Knowles. Substitutes: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Amor, Ashworth, Paulo.
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford, Lineham, Goodwin, King, Charnley, Currie, Patton, Hill, D Clark, Cooper, Murdoch-Masila, Hughes, J Clark. Substitutes: Akauola, Philbin, Davis, Mamo.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).