IT WAS case of so near, yet so far for Wakefield Trinity as they agonisingly dropped out of Super League’s top-four in the final 10 minutes of the regular season.
Trinity have made real progress this year, but their 41-16 home loss to resurgent St Helens was an opportunity missed.
Trinity went into yesterday’s final Super League match knowing a win would mean they finished third.
They could even afford to lose, by 14 points or fewer and still retain fourth place ahead of Salford Red Devils on for and against, with Hull staying third.
But what was expected to be a party afternoon fell flat as Wakefield turned in their most disappointing performance of the season.
They were hanging on to their top-four place as late as the 70th minute, but were second-best throughout and there was a sense of inevitability about the way Saints pulled clear in the final stages.
Defeat always looked likely, but Saints’ late 15-point flurry inflated the margin to 25 and pushed Trinity down to fifth, with Salford Red Devils moving up to fourth.
That means Trinity will play only three of their Super-8s fixtures at home. The loss of an extra home game could cost the club around £60,000.
Since they joined Super League in 1999 Trinity have become masters at overturning the odds, but on this occasion, with everything seemingly in their favour, they could not rise to the occasion.
The writing was on the wall at half-time, when Saints, who had not won in Yorkshire since last September, led 24-6.
Wakefield rallied in the third quarter, but ran out of steam. Saints could not move from sixth place, but points carry over from the league campaign into the Super-8s and they needed to win to stay in the hunt for the semi-finals.
From the first whistle they looked faster and stronger. It was their third straight win and, now just one point behind fourth-placed Salford, they will feel they have a real chance of going all the way to the Grand Final.
The top four after the seven additional fixtures will contest the play-offs and Wakefield are also very much in the race, though they will need to handle big games better.
Trinity were on the back foot from the first whistle and Saints were full value for their big interval lead.
The visitors went head after nine minutes when Danny Richardson, who formed an effective half-back partnership with Theo Fages, stepped through for a well-taken solo try.
Wakefield levelled almost immediately, Matty Ashurst running a good line onto a defence-splitting pass by Liam Finn, who also converted.
But Trinity failed to build on that and Saints took a firm grip on the game with back-to-back tries midway through the half.
James Roby reacted quickly to touch down after Fages’s kick bounced off a post, then Tommy Makinson chipped over the defence and ran through to regather and score before Regan Grace finished off some fine handling and Mark Percival landed his fourth conversion.
The 18-point gap meant Trinity were still in the hunt for the top-four, if not to win the game, but they needed to score first.
They did that when Scott Grix went over from close-range off Dean Hadley’s pass just three minutes after the restart, Finn adding the extras.
That followed a scrum close to Saints’ line forced by a powerful tackle from James Hasson, the recent signing from Salford making his Trinity debut, on Percival.
A superb tackle by Luke Thompson kept Sam Williams out from Danny Kirmond’s pass, but Saints extended their lead to 14 points with 25 minutes left through a Percival penalty after Reece Lyne pulled Zeb Taia back off the ball.
That made the gap 14 points and meant Wakefield were clinging on to a place in the top-four by a single point on for and against.
They gave themselves some more breathing space on the hour when Kyle Wood, Tinirau Arona and Craig Huby worked the ball left to Finn and he delayed his pass superbly to send Mason Caton-Brown over, though the try was unconverted.
Another Percival penalty took some of the sting out of Wakefield and then Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook crashed over with 10 minutes left, Percival adding the extras.
A try would still have been enough for Wakefield, but Zeb Taia stuck the knife in with a touchdown four minutes from time, Percival maintaining his 100 per cent record with the boot and Richardson landed a one-pointer as the hooter sounded.
Wakefield Trinity: Grix, Jones-Bishop, Lyne, Tupou, Caton-Brown, Williams, Finn, Walker, Wood, Huby, Hadley, Ashurst, Arona. Substitutes: Kirmond, Hasson, Fifita, England.
St Helens: Lomax, Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Grace, Fages, Richardson, Douglas, Roby, Thompson, Taia, Peyroux, Wilkin. Substitutes: Walmsley, Amor, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Knowles.
Referee: J Child (Batley).