A PRECURSOR to the Challenge Cup Final, it wasn’t.

But Saints and Warrington still put on quite a show – and the encounter between the top two teams in the Betfred Super League gave both coaches food for thought when it comes to their Wembley selections.

Saints had six regulars missing and Wolves ten during last week’s showdown, and it’s fair to say their replacements did their chances of making the showpiece final no harm whatsoever.

I must give a special mention to 18-year-old Jack Welsby, who picked up the Man of the Match award, for he was outstanding in both attack and defence while deputising for his mentor Lachlan Coote.

Coote is set for a return to the big stage at Wembley, but coach Justin Holbrook has said he would have no hesitation to play Welsby if needed.

Another player who will hopefully carry his form to the capital is Jonny Lomax, who for me has been the outstanding player of the Betfred Super League season. He, along with Welsby, was a key indicator in the 30-12 defeat of the Wolves, scoring one and constantly troubling the opposition defence.

Echoing the thoughts of the gaffer… it was a slow start from the Saints and remained a very tight contest up until half-time, but I was delighted in the way we absorbed the Wire pressure and went on to record a convincing win.

The result was probably a fair indication of where each time is at, given St Helens are streets ahead of Warrington in the league… by 14 points to be precise!

We have star quality throughout the team and so it’s no surprise we are 11/8 with title sponsors Betfred to win the Challenge Cup AND the Grand Final.

n Two big talking points have been dominating the agenda within the game recently.… one good and one bad.

Firstly, something I am delighted about, is the return of Reserve Grade for the 2020 season. This has been something that I, along with 99% of people within our game, have been campaigning for now for years. It will give a much-needed stepping stone for those players coming out of Academy rugby to progress to the top level team, without having to play for a club they DIDN’T sign for!

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of dual-registration with Championship/League 1 clubs because, even with this, there are not nearly enough opportunities for players to play, and if you aren’t playing how do you develop?

Being someone who came through the pathway of academy to reserves, and then to first team, I know the benefits of young players playing both with and against seasoned professionals, and having genuine ambitions to move up the ranks at their chosen clubs. We have some great young players in Super League, so hopefully this decision will help to develop many more.

n The negative point is the amount of dissent increasingly creeping into our game.

Steve Ganson, RFL’s Head of Match Officials, said he wants coaches and players to think twice about harassing referees – and I agree!

A given in sport is that referees will always make mistakes, after all they are only human. What we can’t have is players confronting them aggressively, in the process tainting something that our game has worked hard to achieve. In the heat of the moment players will always have frustrations, but we have always led the way in regards to respecting our officials. Let’s not lose this.

I personally think that strapping refs with mics is the worst thing to have happened. It’s killed any rapport between players and officials, with refs overly conscious of what they can say.

I used to love having craic with the likes of Russel Smith, Karl Kirkpartrick and co, and I think the respect was mutual… and I’m sure it helped edge a few decisions!

n Next up, in our last match before Wembley, we face the Leeds Rhinos at Headingley.

They have seen a resurgence in form recently and will be no doubt wanting to put one over the newly-crowned League Leaders’ Shield winners.

I can’t see this happening… so I’m going for a Saints win by 13 points or more (11/4 at Betfred), which would set us up nicely for the trip to London the following week.