St Helens will face Leeds in the Grand Final after two tries in five minutes from second rower Joe Batchelor helped the reigning Super League champions to a 19-12 victory over Salford in a spellbinding semi-final at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
Saints held off a formidable fightback from the Red Devils, who had led 12-0 after 16 minutes, to secure a victory that will give them the chance to send popular manager Kristian Woolf to Old Trafford next Saturday night.
The Saints will be looking to claim an unprecedented fourth straight Grand Final victory in a repeat of the 2011 decider which Leeds won 32-16.
Woolf will be particularly pleased with how his side overcame the loss of England’s leading rower Alex Walmsley, with Agnatius Paasi and Matty Lees taking over beautifully to make up for his considerable absence.
Already without Man of Steel contender Brodie Croft, Salford were dealt another desperately unlucky blow after just two minutes when Andy Ackers was forced out of action after an ill-timed tackle on full-back Jon Bennison left him shaken.
Although the Red Devils had a specialist replacement in Amir Bourouh, they sorely missed out on the elusive run for their first-choice hooker.
Batchelor had already worked his way into England coach Shaun Wane’s plans for the World Cup and he provided a timely reminder of his impressive form with the first try, anchoring Jonny Lomax’s grubber kick after was preciously close to the opener in the same way four minutes earlier.
Lomax was also the provider four minutes later, this time with a softly executed short pass, to get the former York man for his second try and he nearly completed a hat trick as he chased the kick by Jack Welsby.
Tommy Makinson converted both tries for a 12-0 lead but Salford were given a 23rd-minute helping hand when loose striker Morgan Knowles, who plays his rugby close to the edge, went overboard with a tackle dangerous on Chris Atkin and was sent to the bin of sin
Atkin was also on the end of a crisp, albeit legal, tackle from Welsby as the Saints maintained their aggressive defense in a bid to shut down Salford’s dangerous men.
The Red Devils took advantage of the extra man as Kallum Watkins, enjoying a breath of fresh air after moving to second, crossed a gap for a try, which Marc Sneyd scored.
Makinson was wide with a long-range penalty attempt but Lomax put two scores between the teams with a drop goal on the stroke of halftime, when the Saints led 13-6.
The champions were denied a try early in the second half when referee Chris Kendall ordered a double move against Lees and it gave Salford all the encouragement they needed.
Skillful handling allowed winger Joe Burgess to step into space and full-back Ryan Brierley finished with his 12th try of the campaign.
Sneyd’s second goal took the visitors within a point and skipper Elijah Taylor thought he had put them ahead in the 65th minute only to be denied a try for an obstruction in the build-up.
That proved to be Salford’s last hope as Saints secured the decisive scoreline, with a helping hand from Watkins after his careless offload gave them possession from 30 yards out.
Lomax again played the key role with a smart kick that created Bennison’s all-important try.
Makinson’s third goal made it 19-12, but there was another dramatic twist when the England winger was booked five minutes from time for obstructing Salford center Tim Lafai’s pursuit of the ball .
Salford’s 3,500 fans screamed for a penalty try but Paul Rowley’s men had to settle for a penalty and the 12-man Saints were able to defend their line and see victory.