SAINTS progressed into the Challenge Cup quarter finals to underline emphatically the difference a year makes.

This time last season Saints were unceremoniously dumped out of the Challenge Cup after conceding 53 points against a white-hot Castleford side.

However today the boot was on the other foot as hat-trick hero Ben Barba fired Saints to an emphatic 36-18 victory.

It was tough at times, and afterwards Saints coach Justin Holbrook - who like Barba was tasting the cup for the first time - admitted that the first half was the fastest game so far this season.

Cas, to be fair were pretty dogged in that first 40 and probably had the same number of attacking sets as Saints – but ironically conceded twice when they seemed more likely to score themselves.

The Tigers were pounding the line, and although they lofted an awkward kick over the head of Barba the Saints full back somehow managed to offload under pressure to the quickest man on the field.

Regan Grace had the full length in front of him, but he pinned his ears back to race in approaching the quarter mark.

Danny Richardson goaled and added a penalty in a game that was intense and fast-paced.

Once again Cas came back, but from another dangerous position Barba again came up with the ball and scampered the length for another sicker for the Tigers.

The 1,700-strong travelling support hollered with delight, with thoughts of Wembley on their minds.

To go in 12-0 was a fillip for Saints, and they looked ready to pull clear when Barba showed his dazzling footwork and pace to cut back inside and race over.

However Cas got an admittedly slender toe-hold in the game when Jake Trueman scored a fine try.

If there was one gripe with Saints’ play in an otherwise strong afternoon, it was ball control and often they spilled forced passes.

But Barba’s soft hands sent Ryan Morgan over to extend the lead only for Greg Minikin to respond on 58 minutes.

However, Saints wrapped it up with a smartly taken typical Sean Longesque score from protégé Richardson.

And Barba resisted the option of passing to the supporting Jonny Lomax to cross for his hatotrick.

Saints fans by this stage were singing Wembley songs, with Mike McMeeken’s late interception being rendered a mere detail.