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Saints grind out tough win at Widnes
IT was not pretty at times, but Saints gave Nathan Brown his first win in charge of the club after an occasionally stormy encounter at the Stobart Stadium.
It was a determined and resolute display, rather than a flashy one in which Brown’s boys only edged in front for the first time in the last quarter, but at least stopped statisticians having to look up the last time a new coach lost his first two games at the Saints.
The game was delicately poised at 4-4 when veteran Australian prop Ben Cross went high and heavy to spark out Saints skipper Paul Wellens.
It lit the fuse. After the ensuing melee had died down referee James Child produced a red card for Cross with Vikings skipper Jon Clarke being handed a yellow card.
In the ten minute spell when Saints had a two-man advantage the visitors took the lead for the first time when Lee Gaskell threaded his way through and then there was no way back for the Vikings.
With Widnes chasing the game, a loose Dave Allen pass was scooped up by Jonny Lomax, who sent Francis Meli in for his second of the afternoon.
Although Saints dominated for large parts of the game, assisted in the first half by a big penalty count in their favour, they lacked the cutting edge to turn that into points.
The drizzly conditions, it has to be said, did not make for running rugby but too often the Saints attacking play was pedestrian and predictable and by the time the ball was transferred to the flanks the defence had already adjusted.
The Saints attack is an issue the coaching staff are working on, but thankfully on Sunday the defence was immense, not least from skipper Wellens.
Widnes are not a team that can be taken lightly these days; gone are the days when this was a turn up and win exercise and the Vikings were highly motivated for this one and it made for a proper gritty derby which stirred the emotions of the 8,322 crowd.
The presence of Wigan bogeyman Gareth Hock, making his debut in a Widnes shirt, added more fat to the fire, but Saints coped with that threat on the left well, particularly Jordan Turner.
Vikings scored first when Stefan Marsh collected Paddy Flynn’s offload from a Joe Mellor kick to touch down.
Despite having plenty of ball, courtesy of a big penalty count piggy back, Saints found it hard to penetrate the Vikings line.
However on 18 minutes, after earlier being bundled into touch from a similar move, Meli cashed in on good work from Lomax and Wellens to force his way in at the corner.
Lomax was unable to add the extras and that is how it stayed until the break.
Widnes, however, put on some good pressure towards the close of the half and it took good tackles from Wellens and Jordan Turner on Willie Isa and Cameron Phelps to keep the hosts at bay.
The game was not without its casualties. A thumping big hit from Macgrath Leuluai saw off Josh Perry after four minutes, Lance Hohaia was forced to leave with a serious shoulder injury in the last quarter and in between Lomax was groggily led off while he recovered from a bang to the head.
Vikings were in the wars too and they lost Phelps, who was carried off on a stretcher with an ankle injury.
But the game was in the balance, particularly with Widnes getting their run of penalties in the second half.
A high tackle from Hohaia at one end of the field was followed by a heavy one from Cross on Wellens at the other end, sparking a free-for-all on the hour mark.
The referee despatched Cross with a red and Clarke with a yellow, which served to give Saints’ rusty attack something of a leg up.
And towards the end of Clarke’s spell in the bin, Gaskell, who grew in confidence the longer the game progressed, scored to effectively hand the spoils to Saints.
Widnes: Briscoe; Flynn, Marsh, Phelps, Isa; Mellor, Hanbury; Cross, Clarke, O’Carroll, Allen, Leuluai, Cahill. Subs: White, Hock, Joseph, Gerrard.
Saints: Wellens; Makinson, Turner, Jones, Meli; Gaskell, Lomax; Perry, Hohaia, Laffranchi, Soliola, Wilkin, Manu. Subs: Greenwood, Flanagan, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Puletua.
Ref: James Child