Ben Barba turned on the style at the Dacia Magic Weekend to help St Helens consolidate top spot in the Betfred Super League with a 38-18 win over Widnes.
A spectator at St James’ Park 12 months earlier, the mercurial Australian full-back took centre stage this time, scoring his 19th try of a wonderful season as Saints overcame a gritty Vikings side.
It was a seventh successive defeat for Widnes, who remain entrenched in the bottom four, but they made Saints work for their anticipated victory in a game that marked the anniversary of coach Justin Holbrook’s first match in charge, a fairytale 45-0 rout of Hull in Newcastle.
The points feast followed an opening 13-try spectacular in which Toronto beat Toulouse 43-30 to establish a five-point lead at the top of the Betfred Championship.
Saints were well below their best and Widnes threatened a major upset when second rower Matt Whitley took Jordan Johnstone’s short pass to crash over for a fifth-minute try but they were forced into a reshuffle when full-back Rhys Hanbury went off injured.
The leaders drew level when scrum-half Danny Richardson finished off a break from inside his own half by second rower Dominique Peyroux and went in front on 14 minutes when centre Jimmy Keinhorst fumbled Barba’s kick to present Mark Percival with a soft try.
Barba then showed his defensive resilience in turning second rower Sam Wilde onto his back over the line before bamboozling the Vikings defence with another kick that produced an opportunist try for winger Regan Grace.
The Vikings’ Papua New Guinea international Wellington Albert, who made a big impact from the bench, crashed over for a well-taken try before Barba scythed through the Widnes defence for his 16th Super League try of the season.
Widnes suffered another blow when the impressive Johnstone was forced off with a head knock but Saints were reduced to 12 men three minutes before the break when Peyroux was sin-binned for obstructing Aaron Heremaia in pursuit of Joe Mellor’s kick.
Video referee Ben Thaler ignored the Vikings’ claim for a penalty try but they struck as the half-time hooter sounded, with Keinhorst making full use of the extra man to cross for his first try for the club.
Stefan Marsh kicked all three conversions to trim Saints’ lead to just four points at the break but Richardson added a penalty early in the second half, taking up valuable time while his side were still down to 12 men.
Widnes might have drawn level when Whitley was held up over the line but they fell further behind on 54 minutes when a jinking run from Percival opened up their defence and winger Tommy Makinson provided the link to get centre Ryan Morgan over for Saints’ fifth try.
Barba then supplied the final pass for Morgan to score his second despite a suggestion of a knock-on and Grace grabbed his second three minutes from the end after pouncing on a handling error and sprinting 80 metres upfield.
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