St Helens Star: SAINTS have played many a get out of jail card in the Super League era but they had to use a full deck of them this time 18 years ago at Old Trafford to clinch their third Grand Final victory in four seasons.

There were so many things which made the 19-18 victory over Bradford Bulls memorable; not least the dramatic ending and controversy that followed it.

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Sean Long's last-minute drop goal clinched the victory for Ian Millward’s men after they had been under the cosh for most of the game against the favourites and reigning champs.

But they kept their composure and that final set of six, leading to the drop goal was testimony to their methodical approach, determination, skill and calmness under pressure.

Bulls had initially looked set to blitz a Saints side looking jaded from the previous week's absorbing encounter, with key players Keiron Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe carrying knocks into the game.

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To make matters worse coach Ian Millward was forced to re-shuffle his back line within three minutes of kick off when Paul Wellens caught the full force of Brandon Costin's knee in attempting to clear a kick through.

While Wellens was flat out with a fractured cheekbone, Bulls simply transferred play swiftly right where Scott Naylor was on hand to open the scoring.

That seemed to set the tone for the evening as Bulls looked to do a similar early demolition job on Saints as they had done in last year's final against Wigan.

St Helens Star: Chris Joynt holds the title aloft in 2002

Video referee Gerry Kershaw saved Saints from a second try, ruling there had been a knock on prior to Paul Deacon polishing off a finely executed move under the posts.

As the Bulls stampede gathered momentum, the 25,000 Saints fans suddenly got feelings of deja-vu from the Challenge Cup Final defeat by Wigan at Murrayfield earlier that year.

But Saints held their ground and despite the heavy bombardment, the collapse never came and they even had the audacity to plunder two late first half tries to go in 12-8 up at the interval.

The first try taught Bulls a sharp lesson in the importance of playing to the whistle. Long's lofted ball was left by a nervy Lesley Vainikolo, collected by Martin Gleeson who somehow managed to release in the tackle to Chris Joynt.

The skipper shovelled it out to Sean Hoppe, who smuggled the ball out of a three-man tackle to Mike Bennett who took it like a gift and picked his spot while Bulls stopped to appeal to the referee.

Long's try after good work by Cunningham rubbed more salt into the Bulls' wounds – and it certainly stung them back into action as they came up with two quick tries after the restart.

Saints, however, were not rolling over and following charges from Darren Albert, Peter Shiels and Sculthorpe underlined the ball was funnelled wide for Martin Gleeson to slide over.

This was perhaps the biggest difference between the sides, with Saints coming off the ropes to take the scraps of chances that came their way with both hands, while Bulls squandered theirs.

READ: Chris Joynt on the voluntary tackle that never was>

Once Saints drew level with Long's penalty the psychological edge seemed to tip their way for the first time, as players on both sides began hitting the deck with cramp.

The last ten minutes were gripping with Saints having three failed attempts at the one-pointer, compared to Bradford's two.

But the key to victory here lay not necessarily in the coolness of the kicker under pressure, but in the efforts of the Saints defence in denying them a platform.

Joynt, Tim Jonkers and Bennett were particularly to the fore in stopping Bulls making a serious advance into territory that would have set up a good position for a Deacon drop goal.

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In contrast, on attack Saints went the full length of the field in the last minute build up to Long's last gasp winner.

Deacon's drop goal flapper from half way was collected by Hoppe behind his own line - although one further bobble could have easily seen Saints fatally having to drop out from under the sticks.

What followed was a flash of confident and purposeful Saints at their very best.

Hoppe's long pass released Albert, who streaked 20 metres. The next play saw fellow winger Tony Stewart gallop to the half way mark, with Sculthorpe and then Newlove taking it to the 20 metre line.

Joynt's final drive from dummy half set up the platform for Cunningham to lay it on a plate for Long, who made it third time lucky with the sweetly taken match clincher.

It is just a pity the post-match carping over the referee overshadowed the 80 minutes of rugby that preceded it, particularly over Joynt's last second alleged voluntary tackle.

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The skipper had, in fact, returned to his feet in time - so no penalty was the correct decision.

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This was the fifth time Saints beat the Bulls in a big cup final in the Super League era – with the two teams being the two biggest rivals in those first years of the new era.

Who would have predicted then that it would be the last time these sides would meet in a big final….

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Saints: Wellens; Albert, Gleeson, Newlove, Stewart; Sculthorpe, Long; Britt, Cunningham, Ward, Bennett, Jonkers, Joynt. Subs: Hoppe, Stankevitch, Shiels, Higham.

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