Widnes passed the first real test of their Championship credentials with a 9-8 win away at Halifax.
The Panthers are fancied as the next best after top two Featherstone and Leigh, but the Vikings claimed the two points at The Shay to make it three wins from three.
Comfortable wins over London and Workington had raised some expectations for Widnes, so for them to pass this test is a real fillip for their perfect start to the campaign.
In truth, Widnes probably should have won with a little bit more to spare in the wet.
They controlled large parts of the first half and led when Matty Smith’s shallow kick towards the posts was claimed by the excellent Eribe Doro, catching the ball and bouncing off a defender to touch down.
Doro, on loan from Warrington, had an outstanding game and was prominent in several pivotal moments in the game – be it scoring tries, forcing errors or winning penalties.
It was a strong run through the middle by Doro that helped create the field position for his own try.
Halifax struggled to break from the Vikings grip and even when Cory Aston got a long kick in to turn Widnes around, a superb kick to the corner from deep by Danny Craven got Widnes back in control.
A second smart kick by Craven from deep, this time pinning Joe Martin in-goal, then created the field position for Widnes to win a penalty that Joe Edge duly converted for 8-0 at half time.
Widnes maintained control for the first five minutes or so of the second half, kicking well and forcing Halifax to start sets close to their own try line.
But the hosts turned the game on its head off the back of consecutive penalties.
After a spell of pressure on the Widnes line, Halifax shifted the ball right and James Saltonstall crossed in the corner.
That prompted a spell of control for the Panthers, and shortly after Lloyd Roby had spilled the ball in a tackle, they were presented the opportunity to level the scores at 8-8.
Widnes tweaked their set up, moving the tireless Oliver Davies back in to the middle and re-introducing Kenny Baker, and they gradually won back the arm wrestle.
When they won a penalty midway through the second half, they went for goal, only for Edge to drag his shot wide from a decent position 30 metres out.
The Vikings remained calm though and when a Halifax knock-on gifted them field position, Matty Smith kept his cool to land a drop goal.
Halifax were attacking the more boggy end of the ground, and after a Craven drop out had been slung along the floor, Cory Aston’s drop goal attempt was similarly scuffed.
A big tackle from Aaron Brown and Tyler Dupree then forced an error and that enabled Widnes to see out the final minute of the game and claim a fine victory.
Widnes, remarkably considering the conditions, only used 15 of the 17 on the day – with Will Tilleke and Lewis Hulme unused substitutes.
The nature of the game in the final quarter meant keeping the strong middles on, notably Baker, Davies and Dupree, was prioritised.
Craven looked likely to be going off at half time with what appeared to be a hamstring problem, but battled on – maybe had Joe Lyons been on the bench as in previous weeks, he would have been put in to play.
However, it is a stark contrast to last season – Davies and Brown played the full 80 through the middle and were outstanding.
Dupree and Doro did several effective stints, with Simon Finnigan utilising the fact he only used two of the subs to ensure he could rotate using his interchanges at regular patterns.
Half backs on top
A notable difference between the two half-back pairings was the success and quality of the kicking games. While Aston and Keyes struggled to get Halifax where they wanted, Craven and Smith were able to steer Widnes in to good field position, and all Widnes’ points were off the back of kicks – be it directly or indirectly.
Matty Fozard also contributed with some useful kicks from dummy half.
With a settled set of middles in the pack, the quality of the half-backs is becoming more prominent.
Still more to come
While Halifax were missing a few today, they were missing no more than Widnes – who have recorded three fine victories despite several bodies on the sideline.
Skipper Jack Owens, centre Ste Tyrer and forwards Owen Farnworth and Shane Grady would be almost certain starters if Widnes were at full strength.
Ollie Brookes, Jake Spedding and Levy Nzoungou – who warmed up with the side as 18th man – were also on the sidelines too.
Halifax 8-9 Widnes Stats
Halifax: Martin, McComb, Barber, Arundel, Saltonstall, Aston, Keyes, Tangata, Moore, Murray, Kavanagh, Garside, Larroyer. Subs: Jouffret (unused), Gwaze, Fairbank, Calcott.
Try: Saltonstall 48. Goal: Keyes 2
Widnes: Roby, Ince, Fleming, Edge, Holroyd, Craven, Smith, Baker, Fozard, Dupree, Wilde, Davies, Brown. Subs: Doro, Tilleke (unused), Lawton, Hulme (unused)
Try: Doro 23. Goals: Edge 2. Drop goal: Smith.