AN EXPLOSION of joy and an equal measure of relief were the primary emotions spilling out on the pitch and radiating to the stands following Saints Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Halifax.

Wembley awaits.

It has been a while – in fact the gap between 2008 and present day is longest period Saints have been away from the game’s historic showpiece event since 1953.

If that long hard wait has been felt by the supporters, put yourselves in the boots of that crop of players who have been tantalisingly close in the past only to fall at the final hurdle.

St Helens Star: St Helens Star:

Although it is first time lucky for the likes of Lachlan Coote, Joseph Paulo and Kevin Naiqama – there are plenty in the Saints ranks who have endured plenty of close shaves and heartache to get to this point.

That crop would include long standing servants Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Kyle Amor, Alex Walmsley and Mark Percival – none of whom have graced the Wembley turf.

On top of that, since the Grand Final win of 2014, this crop of players have tasted the bitter defeat of semi-final heartache five times, twice in the Challenge Cup and three times in Super League.

England centre Percival, who came through the junior ranks at Saints before making his debut in 2013, is overjoyed at reaching Wembley for the first time.

Percival said: “It is brilliant. The last seven seasons I have played here we have been with a similar bunch, with only a few coming and going.

“We feel like we have played well in some of those years but ended up coming up short in some big games.

“You saw a release there at the end at Bolton. We were just happy to get to the final and have that opportunity.

“Everybody has been buzzing about Wembley since.”

After kicking three goals as a 20-year-old in Saints’ Super League Grand Final win over Wigan in 2014, like his teammates he has been a reluctant spectator for all the subsequent finales.

St Helens Star: St Helens Star:

Leading the sing-song after reaching the final and (above) breaking clear versus Halifax Pics: Bernard Platt

Leeds inflicted Challenge Cup and Super League semi-final defeats in 2015, with Warrington knocking them out of the play-offs in 2016.

Then Cas broke their hearts in golden point at the same stage the year after and in 2018, the year that promised so much, ended with a shock defeat by Catalans in the Challenge Cup semis and a late KO by Warrington in the play-offs.

So, by clearing this hurdle, Percival expects it will have popped that bubble of pressure.

“The last five semi-finals we have been to, in both comps, we have lost, so by winning one we can now hopefully kick on and even take that off us when we go into that Super League semi at the end of the year. It is definitely a monkey off our backs now and hopefully we can now play how we play,” he said.

It will be a first time visit to the national stadium as an adult, although he made the journey down with his school to watch.

Walking into the tunnel to Abide With Me and running out on to the hallowed turf to take part in rugby league’s most historic of occasion is the fulfilment of all those boyhood dreams.

He said: “This is my seventh season in the first team and all I have ever wanted to do is get the chance to go to Wembley and to finally do so is massive for me and the lads.

“In the time between getting there and next Saturday it has been a good thing to keep at the back of your mind.”

Saints clinched the League Leaders Shield with five games to spare and have enjoyed a tremendous season after approaching it with unfinished business.

They will have their eyes on emulating the treble winners of 2006. Saints have looked a more balanced and composed side this season, helped by the influence of Lachlan Coote at full back, but also assisted by the work of Theo Fages and Jonny Lomax in the halves.

St Helens Star:

Celebrating Luke Thompsons late score against Warrington in June Picture: Bernard Platt

The pack, too, with Big Al teaming up with Luke Thompson to lead the charge from the front, has been immense.

So what, from a player’s point of view, has been the key to the success this term?

Percival answered: “If we are being honest, we only lost about four games last year – but two of those were massive knockout games. But this year we are not as panicky, and there is not the tendency to not stick to the game plan and start blaming each other if we are not winning.

“This year we were 6-0 down after 60 minutes at Warrington and nobody was panicking, we were still doing our job, staying composed and we ended up winning 21-10. In the big games it is all about doing your job – and this year we are doing it for the full 80 and working hard, more so collectively.”

That said, the true test of this class of 2019 will be measured in how busy they keep the silver polishers. Winning the Challenge Cup would be a huge achievement for this crop of players – and that could help them overcome any further anxiety further down the line this term in the play offs.

St Helens Star:

Percival will be a dangerman for Saints

But the Wolves, for all their difficulties this past few weeks, will nevertheless provide a formidable test – and they will bring bags of Wembley experience, too.

Percival said: “The Warrington fixture is massive now. It is always dead loud and the atmosphere is great, almost like a Saints Wigan derby game.

“Every time we play them I am nervous all week because they are a great side. We know it is going to be a tough team to face. It’s going to be a great game and although we have beaten them a couple of times this year that counts for nothing in this final.”