Saints 22 Wigan Warriors 8

SUPER Saints continued to exceed superlatives with this breathtaking fourth round Silk Cut Challenge conquest of the old enemy in the Knowsley Road cauldron on Saturday.

Crowned champions of the world after beating Brisbane Broncos last month, skipper Chris Joynt's side re-affirmed they are also the game's dominant force in this country with an encore performance of the Grand Final win against in October.

Attacking flair, phenomenal defence, slick off-loading and support work spelled a four tries to one ratio for Saints as they ultimately negotiated a daunting first hurdle on the trail to a unique final at Rugby Union's Twickenham shrine, which could herald a third major prize in six months for the club.

Maybe it's an omen, but this was only Saints' second Challenge Cup success over Wigan in 12 outings, with the other also being at Knowsley Road in 1997 when captain Bobbie Goulding was sent off -- and Saints went on to lift the trophy!

By their very nature Saints-Wigan clashes are no-quarter-asked-or-given affairs, and this one was no exception with much of the tackling bordering on the brutal -- understandable perhaps given what was at stake, not least the finance generated by a cup final appearance.

Glancing at the overall pattern, Saints laid a 12-point launching pad in the opening quarter thanks to inspirational man-of-the-match Chris Joynt, only for the Warriors to re-assert themselves to remain in contention in trailing just 12-8 after 60 minutes.

Then, having absorbed enormous pressure, resilient Saints sealed matters via instinctive handling skills which are their birthright, and one could sense the relief at the breaking of the 50-minute impasse via tries from substitutes Tim Jonkers and Tony Stewart.

The most thankless task for a scribe after a totally compelling victory such as this is man-of-the-match nominations and, although the peerless 'Joynty' earned my vote, I feel sure that captain fantastic Chris would have plumped for any of his team-mates.

In particular, full-back Paul Wellens, who bounced back from an eye-socket injury; Tommy Martyn for some earth-shattering tackling; recent Aussie imports David Fairleigh and Peter Shiels; 'Newy' and Kevin Iro; Sonny Nickle; the youthful Jonkers, I could go on.... The only sad note on another day of days for Saints was a sickening fracture of the jaw sustained by Paul Sculthorpe, who was playing at the top of his form after being dogged by injury during the Millennium season.

So the first of at least five games against Wigan this season is consigned to the record books, and although Warriors' coach Frank Endacott was fulsome in his praise of Saints' showing, many home supporters also believed Wigan contributed greatly to a memorable spectacle.

Raw, rainy conditions and a consequent heavy pitch greeted the teams, and most of the early pressure was exerted by Saints against a Warriors' side who abandoned their traditional cherry-and-white strip in favour of black-and-white.

And it was first blood to the Knowsley Road team on 13 minutes when Joynt miraculously spun out of the tackle of Gary Connolly to send Anthony Sullivan over, with Sean Long tacking on the conversion.

Joynt then went solo in taking advantage of poor marker defence to cross the Wigan line for another six-pointer, only for Wigan to open their account when Adrian Lam's inch-perfect cross-kick saw Connolly race over after beating Sullivan and Newlove to the ball.

Warriors' skipper Andy Farrell added the goal, and with David Furner and Kris Radlinski setting an inspiring lead Wigan laid seige to Saints' line for the remainder of the first half and on the resumption, but barn-door defence meant they were confined to a penalty goal by Farrell.

Wigan substitute Harvey Howard was placed on report following an alleged high tackle on Shiels and, leading by just 12-8 with 15 minutes to go, the scene was set for Saints to deliver the coup-de-grace.

It came when Long, Martyn, Joynt and Newlove prised open the Wigan cover in rousing stayle for Jonkers to cross and Long to convert -- but one can never relax against Wigan as Newton and Dallas went were stopped inches short.

So it was only when Sean Hoppe (an admirable stand-in second-rower) Long and Iro swept through in rafter-raising manner from inside Saints' territory to send in Stewart that the Knowsley Road faithful unwound -- with the other winner after an enthralling contest being the Rugby League code itself.

And the other joyous spin-off after another Saints epic is that the good days are back with a vengeance at Knowsley Road. Surely more five-figure attendances are not too much to ask in support of a team that ranks among the best in the club's history.