AFTER a year of leading from the front, Saints again came unstuck in the semi-final to end a season that promised so much with just the League Leaders Shield to show for it.

Their 18-13 home defeat by Warrington means a fourth consecutive Super League semi defeat since they last graced the Theatre of Dreams.

The shield, no matter how it is polished and ribboned, is a poor return for a side that lit up the competition for the first six months - but just like in 2005 they lost the two games that mattered at the final hurdle.

It was a bitterly disappointing end, for although there was no lack of effort and the pack gave as good as it got in the war of attrition - especially Luke Thompson, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Saints lacked a real cutting edge or creative sparkle with the ball.

They ended too many sets poorly, either caught in possession or with an unthreatening kick, and asked too few questions of a Wire defence that was up for it.

And they played, perhaps, a little too conservatively, showing none of the attacking swagger that had helped carve up Warrington a fortnight previously.

In a way the drop goals that kept them nudging the scoreboard along were indicative of a side where the playmakers lacked the confidence to prise the Wire defence apart.

Amidst that were two half chances - one in which Tommy Makinson declined to pass to Danny Richardson outside him in the first half and the other when Jonny Lomax, nursing a compound finger dislocation, spilled a Ben Barba pass after the line had been breached.

Either one of those could have been the game breaker, instead it was Saints' hearts being broken.

What was more disappointing was the manner in which the Saints defence, which has been top drawer all year, was opened up with ease on three occasions.

And that was ultimately their undoing.

Saints got off to a shaky start, twice losing the ball, but atoning with solid defence.

In a low scoring first half Tyrone Roberts and Richardson exchanged penalties. And after Stef Ratchford missed a drop goal, Richardson popped over a one-pointer to give a scoreline not seen since Wembley's FA Vase Final in 1987 - St Helens 3 Warrington 2.

Saints got off to a perfect start in the second half when Richardson's perfect long kick off earned a drop out.

This time they were able to make the pressure tell, with Richardson's bouncing grubber being pounced on by Luke Douglas.

Richardson tagged on the goal to make it 9-2 and the West Stand found their voice.

What needed to happen next was a period of holding that lead and then asking questions to make Wolves doubt themselves at the other end.

Instead they were invited straight back into it when Jack Hughes was sent on a diagonal run, past Mark Percival, and then just about getting the ball down in the corner despite Ben Barba's tackle.

When Lomax was taken out chasing his own kick, Richardson popped over the penalty to make it 11-6.

After a penalty, Wolves pushed forward and Lomax had to rescue the situation in dealing with a dangerous kick.

It came at a cost though with a drop out and a compound dislocation.

Wire scented blood and Kevin Brown and Bryson Goodwin combined to unleash Lineham.

The big wing, who would have been suspended for this had he not won a grading appeal, slid over from a fair distance out, with Roberts putting the visitors 12-11 in front on 59 minutes.

Three minutes later and Barba wriggled free and pinned his ears back, passing inside to the supporting Lomax when there was maybe a chance he could have backed himself.

Alas, under pressure from the covering Roberts, the ball hit the deck.

Saints missed a difficult penalty, but Richardson's one-pointer levelled with 12 minutes remaining.

With nine minutes left Richardson decided to drop the goal to give the Saints the slenderest of leads.

Saints simply had to tackle and not give any penalties away, but they were undone on the right edge when Lineham was sent hurtling to the corner with six minutes to play.

Although Saints have broken Wire so many times with late plays, there was a feeling of inevitability about this.

There was to be no miracle play, no final rabbits from the Barba hat and therefore a disappointing end to a season that promised so much more.

And with it the curtain came down on not just Barba's stay but also former skipper Jon Wilkin's 16 years in the red vee.

It was not a night for fairytale endings.

Saints: Barba; Makinson, Morgan Percival, Grace; Lomax, Richardson, Lees, Knowles, Thompson, Taia, Peyroux, Wilkin. Subs; Roby, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Ashworth.

Warrington: Ratchford; Lineham, Goodwin, T. King, Charnley; Brown, Roberts; Hill, Clark, Cooper, Hughes, Thompson, Westwood. Subs: Murdoch-Masila, Patton, Philbin, G King.