St Helens are set to play Leeds in the Grand Final after two tries in five minutes after second rower Joe Batchelor helped the reigning Super League champions to a 19-12 win over Salford in a fascinating semi-final at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
The Saints fended off a tremendous comeback from the Red Devils, who were 12-0 down after 16 minutes, to claim a win that gives them an opportunity to send popular coach Kristian Woolf soaring at Old Trafford next Saturday night.
The Saints will look to claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive Grand Final win in a repeat of the 2011 decider that Leeds won 32-16.
Woolf will be particularly pleased with how his side recovered from the loss of top English oar Alex Walmsley, with Agnatius Paasi and Matty Lees stepping on the plate to make up for his considerable absence.
Already without Man of Steel contender Brodie Croft, Salford received another desperate blow after just two minutes when Andy Ackers was sidetracked after an ill-timed tackle on full-back Jon Bennison, leaving him reeling.
Despite having a specialist replacement in Amir Bourouh, the Red Devils sorely missed the elusive running of their first-choice hooker.
Batchelor had already wormed his way into England coach Shaun Wane’s World Cup plans, and he timely recalled his impressive form with the opening try, pinning Jonny Lomax’s cultivator kick after similarly coming very close to the opener four minutes earlier came.
Lomax was also the provider four minutes later, this time with a sweetly executed short pass to pass the former Yorker for his second try and he was close to completing a hat-trick when chasing Jack Welsby’s cultivator kick.
Tommy Makinson converted both tries into a 12-0 lead but Salford were given a helping hand in the 23rd minute when loose striker Morgan Knowles, playing his rugby close to the edge, went too far with a dangerous tackle on Chris Atkin went and was sent to the trap of man.
Atkin was also at the end of a crunchy, albeit legal, tackle from Welsby as the Saints kept up their aggressive defense to take out Salford’s danger men.
The Red Devils took advantage of the extra man as Kallum Watkins, enjoying a new life after moving to the second row, went through a gap for a try that Marc Sneyd scored.
Makinson missed the goal with a long-range penalty attempt, but Lomax scored two goals between the teams with a drop goal at halftime when the Saints led 13-6.
The Champions were disallowed a try early in the second half when referee Chris Kendall ruled a double move on Lees and that gave Salford the encouragement they needed.
Deft handling sent winger Joe Burgess into space and full-back Ryan Brierley ended the campaign on his 12th try.
Sneyd’s second goal brought the visitors within a point and skipper Elijah Taylor thought he had given them the lead in the 65th minute, only to be denied a try due to a handicap in the build-up.
It was Salford’s last hope as the Saints scored the decisive goal with a helping hand from Watkins after his careless clearance gave them possession from 30 yards.
Lomax once played the key role with a clever kick that evoked the all-important try from Bennison.
Makinson’s third goal made it 19-12, but there was another dramatic twist when the England winger fell into a trap five minutes from time for interfering with Salford center Tim Lafai’s pursuit of the ball.
The 3,500 Salford fans cried for a penalty shootout, but Paul Rowley’s men had to settle for a penalty and the 12-man Saints defended their line and secured the win.