THERE’S STILL a long way to go and much can happen between now and the quarter-finals at the start of June, but Leeds Rhinos look up for the cup.
Whoever won their fifth-round tie at home to St Helens would be entitled to feel they are capable of going all the way this year and the manner of Rhinos’ 32-12 success only reinforced that.
It was closer and more tense than the final margin suggests, Leeds scoring 12 points in the last six minutes, but Rhinos were superior in every department, against what was a good Saints side.
The blot on an otherwise excellent afternoon for Leeds – who are chasing their first Cup triumph since 1999 – was a 64th minute injury to Rob Burrow, who suffered a suspected broken collarbone making a tackle.
With Rhinos’ other regular hooker, Paul Aiton, on the long-term casualty list, Burrow’s injury leaves them with a major problem to solve. Burrow has been in superb form and he’ll be missed anyway, but someone will have to take over at dummy-half.
That could be skipper Kevin Sinfield, who actually started the game in that role, with Danny McGuire and Burrow as the halves. That worked well enough and credit goes to Leeds’ coach Brian McDermott for getting his side’s tactics spot on.
McDermott resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes over Easter, resting just two players for each holiday game.
Kallum Watkins and Ian Kirke, who made a big impact off the bench, were recalled in place of the unfortunate Ben Jones-Bishop and Ryan Bailey for the cup tie.
Saints, in contrast, rested key men for their Easter Monday trip to Widnes Vikings and as well as it costing them two league points, there was no benefit to their cup performance. Leeds were eager, if a little edgy, but Saints seemed to struggle to get up to pace and made some rusty mistakes.
Tries to Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker book-ended the first half and they were value for their 12-6 lead after doing the majority of the pressing.
The first came after five minutes, in the set from a goal line drop out. Referee Richard Silverwood ruled Josh Jones had played at Burrow’s kick and following that Sinfield, Burrow and McGuire worked the ball right to Hardaker, who had two men in support, but went himself and had enough strength to plant the ball down.
Just before the break Leeds were controversially awarded a scrum 30 metres out, when Silverwood decided Tom Markingson had knocked on in Watkinson’s tackle.
From the scrum the ball was moved left, Joel Moon batted it on to Ryan Hall and he cut inside, offloaded as he fell and found Hardaker, who twisted out of a tackle to dash over.
It’s not often a winger fails to score, but is named man of the match.
Hall achieved that with a sensational defensive performance, tough-tackling, safe under the bomb and constantly forcing Saints on to the back foot as he cleared his lines.
His hand-off on Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook was a match hightlight.
Leeds’ first-half tries were separated by a score out of the blue from Saints, on 12. Sia Soliola’s offload caught the defence out and sent Mark Percival into a big gap and Adam Swift was in support to cross, just holding off Watkins.
The big talking point was the decision by video referee Ben Thaler to disallow a McGuire touchdown on 17. Walsh took the No 6’s kick, was hurt as McGuire followed up and dropped the ball, McGuire gathering to nip over.
The video official ruled the tackle was complete before Walsh lost possession.
However, the Saints man simply dropped the ball, so it should have been play on and a try to Leeds, or at the very least a scrum with their feed. Instead, a scrum was called, with the visitors getting the ball.
Fortunately, that didn’t become an issue and the video official had a quiet afternoon, the only other intervention being to confirm Hardaker’s first score.
There was just one penalty in the first half, but Leeds received back-to-back awards at the start of the second, Sinfield taking the two from the second of those, following a shove on Moon.
Moon then got over from Ablett’s pass after the second-row, who had an excellent game at the heart of an outstanding pack effort, had made a break which almost led to a try for Burrow.
Sinfield’s conversion made it 20-6, but Josh Jones crossed from Lomax’s pass after successive penalties to Saints and with Walsh adding the extras, the gap was back down to eight.
It stayed like that from the 52nd minute to the 74th and for most of that time Saints looked the most threatening.
Rhinos, though, are currently defending better than they have at any time during the summer era and their resolve in this period was ultimately what won them the game, coupled with some errors from the visitors – particularly when Walsh passed into touch and both Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Mose Masoe knocked on in good field positions.
With only two scores in it the game was up for grabs until McGuire wrapped it up with a wonderful try six minutes from time.Sinfield, McGuire and Hardaker shifted the ball right to Watkins, who rampaged down the South Stand side before turning the ball back inside to McGuire.
Sinfield added the extras and then rubbed salt into Saints’ wounds with the final points after Jamie Peacock stepped through between the posts four minutes later. Referee Richard Silverwood had a good game, awarding only eight penalties – four per side. His policy of letting the game flow whenever possible contributed considerably to what was a good spectacle.
The excellent crowd of 12,194 was the best for a Challenge Cup tie at Headingley since Saints’ fourth-round win in 2009.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Burrow,Peacock, Achurch, Ablett, Delaney. Subs (all used): Kirke, Clarkson, Sutcliffe, Singleton.
St Helens: Lomax, Makinson, Turner, Percival, Swift, Wilkin, Walsh, Amor, Roby, Walmsley, Soliola, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Jones. Subs (all used): Masoe, Wellens, Greenwood, Richards.