LEEDS RHINOS suffered a Challenge Cup final hangover as their seven-game winning run came to an end.
Against a St Helens team desperate to get on track following four successive defeats, Rhinos were second-best, without being particularly poor.
They tried hard and defended strongly for long spells, but the exertions of last week and loss of some key players took a toll.
Saints – with half-back Luke Walsh in good form – played considerably better than they had done in their three previous defeats by Leeds this season and some of their off-the-cuff rugby resembled the way Rhinos have operated this year.
That said, some of their tactics when the game was close didn’t live up to the “entertainers” tag they relish so much. Play-acting and time-wasting isn’t welcome in rugby league.
There were just two points in it at the break, after an end-to-end first period which included a couple of contentious calls by the video referees and plenty of action inside both sides’ 20.
Saints went eight points up – for the second time – soon after the interval and were 14 clear with a quarter of the game remaining.
Leeds staged a late rally, but a try two minutes from time sealed Saints’ deserved 32-18 victory, which reopens the race for the league leaders’ shield.
Rhinos remain four points clear at the top of the table, though the gap will be down to two if Wigan beat Catalans Dragons tonight.
Yesterday’s result did Castleford Tigers no favours, leaving them four points outside the play-off zone with three rounds remaining.
Rhinos were missing three players from the side which had beaten Hull KR in the Challenge Cup final.
Zak Hardaker was omitted due to a gashed leg suffered during a collision with Tom Briscoe following the winger’s final try at Wembley.
Kallum Watkins missed out due to an ankle problem – he was at the game yesterday with his damaged foot in a boot – and Rob Burrow was sidelined after damaging a quad muscle scoring his Cup final try.
They joined long-termers Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Liam Sutcliffe and Paul Aiton on the sidelines.
Ashton Golding started at full-back and Jimmy Keinhorst, who was left out of the side at Wembley, came back in at centre.
Jordan Lilley was drafted in on the bench. Both Golding – who made his fourth appearance of the season and fifth in total – and Lilley, whose only previous senior game was away to Wakefield, were celebrating their 19th birthday.
Lilley, predictably, only got 13 minutes at the end, but Golding’s performance was a major plus. It’s a difficult position, but his handling was safe, he got his positioning right and looked a threat with the ball.
Saints went ahead after less than three minutes, following an error by Danny McGuire. The ball squirmed out of his hands at acting-half close to Leeds’ line and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook picked up to send Tommy Makinson over. Walsh converted from tight to the right-hand touchline.
Leeds went close to a try on seven minutes when McGuire kicked through and Golding got over the line, but was held up by Travis Burns and Andre Savelio.
Jamie Peacock took a heavy knock in a tackle a few moments later and had to go off. He looked like Bambi on ice at the time, but managed to return after a concussion assessment.
Mitch Garbutt also threatened off great work by Brad Singleton, then the Aussie’s offload sent McGuire away, but the defence closed him down.
In the same attack Joel Moon almost found a way through, then Saints were penalised for offside and in the set from the penalty Keinhorst cut through from McGuire’s cut-out pass, getting past Adam Swift and Josh Jones for a try which Kevin Sinfield improved.
Parity didn’t last long though. A mix-up between Adam Cuthbertson and Garbutt from the restart conceded a drop-out, Saints were awarded back-to-back penalties and Josh Jones went over at the corner. It looked like Keinhorst had got under the ball. Referee James Child said try and though there was no evidence the ball had been grounded, video referees Richard Silverwood and Chris Kendall gave the green light.
Ten minutes before the break the gap was up to eight points. Singleton knocked on, Peacock picked up in an offside position and Walsh took the two.
Leeds finished the half strongly though, with Golding prominent and he almost got over from McGuire’s pass.
He was tackled just short, but Mitch Achurch stretched over from acting-half. Child signalled no try, but was overturned by his video assistants.
It was similar to a touchdown awarded to Huddersfield Giants’ Jamie Ellis in their win over Castleford 24 hours earlier – some part of Achurch’s hand was in contact with the ball, but there was no control or downward pressure. That particular law needs looking at, but Leeds weren’t complaining. Sinfield converted to cut the interval deficit to two points.
Achurch almost stretched over, from Sinfield’s pass, at the start of the second half, but in the next set Adam Swift broke clear.
Golding got back to make the tackle, but Walsh stepped over on the next play, also adding the extras to make it 20-12.
With 22 minutes left Saints increased their advantage with a fine try, Adam Quinlan slicing through from Burns’ pass and Walsh tagging on the two.
Moments later Mark Flanagan touched down after Ryan Hall had failed to deal with Burns’ kick, but Child reckoned the Leeds man had been tackled in the air and the video referees agreed.
Saints had another one ruled out 10 minutes from time when Turner forced his way over the line, but dropped the ball.
Child said try, but the video refs overruled him and Leeds, remarkably, scored in the next set, Hall speeding over after Sinfield and winger Tom Briscoe had combined to brilliant effect.
Sinfield’s goal cut the gap to eight points.
That revitalised the crowd and the Leeds team, but they couldn’t find another opening and Jon Wilkin’s try two minutes from time put the result beyond doubt, Walsh converting.
That came after Leeds had been penalised near their own line for dissent.
The penalty count finished 8-7 in Leeds’ favour (4-3 in the first half).
Child refereed the game to his usual standard.