LAST NIGHT’S visit of St Helens was billed as a measure of Leeds Rhinos’ progression over the last couple of months.
What the 36-20 defeat, in front of a crowd of 12,152, proved was they are still light years behind Saints and a long way short of being a top side, despite the form they showed in the preceding big wins over Huddersfield Giants and Catalans Dragons.
There is no disgrace in losing to Saints, who went 16 points clear at the top of the table, even if they were without seven players – Tommy Makinson, Danny Richardson, Morgan Knowles. Lachlan Coote, James Roby, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Alex Walmsley – from next weekend’s likely Wembley 17.
Saints are playing a different version of the sport to anyone else in the northern hemisphere, but Leeds went into the game fancying their chances of a third successive win.
The main reason they didn’t get it was Saints are very, very good. But Leeds made too many errors, a big 50-50 call went against them at an important stage and the loss after just 14 minutes of front-rower Ava Seumanufagai was a blow.
He didn’t return after a head injury assessment and was missed. Leeds had only one prop – Nathaniel Peteru – on the bench. Peteru replaced the suspended Brad Singleton in the only change to Leeds’ side from the win over Catalans six days earlier,
Even so, Leeds led briefly in the first half and it was all square at the break. Saints, though, stepped things up after half-time and Rhinos could not go with them.
They added 12 points within five minutes of the restart and Rhinos never threatened to get back into the game after that, going 36-10 behind before a couple of late tries made the scoreline more respectable.
At worst, Leeds will end round 26 only two points above bottom club London Broncos, but yet again they have failed to build on back-to-back wins and the result put a bit more pressure on the game at London in two weeks’ time.
Rhinos’ guard of honour as Saints entered the pitch before the game was a sporting gesture their generosity continued once the first whistle blew. They made four errors in the first 12 minutes, Rob Lui knocking on and passing forward to Rhyse Martin either side of a knock-on by Jack Walker, then Adam Cuthbertson couldn’t take Brett Ferres’ low pass.
Mistakes have been a problem all year, but at least Rhinos were trying to play, even if they overdid it. That displayed some confidence, which was lacking when they lost at Saints in June.
Rhinos looked to have scored on 15 minutes, following a Saints error, when Konrad Hurrell supplied Ash Handley and he reached over, but referee Chris Kendall handed it on to video assistant Robert Hicks as ‘no try’ and that was a good call from the official.
Replays showed Handley had touched down just short and then lost possession as the ball rolled over the line, Jack Welsby – Saints’ very impressive full-back – and Dom Peyroux being the tacklers.
Saints scored in their first serious attack, at the end of the first quarter. A weaving run by Mark Percival began the attack, then Zeb Taia’s offload was picked up by Welsby and Percival flicked a pass to Regan Grace and he stepped past Walker.
That was handed over as a try, Hicks gave the green light and Percival converted from wide out.
Leeds got back on terms on 27 minutes, after Saints’ James Bentley knocked on at a play-the-ball, Richie Myler putting on some footwork to step through the defence and then stretch over.
They thought they were in again soon afterwards when Handley finished brilliantly, but Kendall ruled Hurrell’s offload forward, which was a marginal call at best.
Soon afterwards Handley was in again, off another Hurrell offload and this time his equally good finish was rewarded, Kendall’s guess of ‘try’ being backed up by Hicks.
That was the young winger’s 20th try of the season and his 12th in nine career appearances against Saints.
Someone somewhere will have the stats on how many times Leeds have made an error in the set after scoring a try. One more was added to what must be a high number when Cuthbertson fumbled at a play-the-ball 20 metres out.
Saints, even with key players missing, are too good a side to waste opportunities like that. Theo Fages, Jonny Lomax and Welsby moved the ball quickly right and Kevin Naiqama’s powerful finish matched those earlier in the game, though – with plenty of players around him – Leeds’ defensive effort wasn’t the best. Percival’s kick bounced away off an upright.
Saints went ahead for the second time five minutes after half-time, again off a Leeds error. Walker dropped Cuthbertson’s offload and at the end of that set Fages kicked over the line, Luke Briscoe missed it and Grace and then Zeb Taia both attempted to get a hand on the ball.
Kendall sent it up as a try and Hicks awarded it, Taia being credited with the touchdown.
In the next set Taia kicked ahead for Grace. He should have been wrapped up by Briscoe and Walker, but got an offload away to Taia who crashed over.
Percival converted both and Saints were 12 points ahead and in total command. That lead was increased on 57 minutes when Percival took the two after interference by Brad Dwyer in front of Leeds’ posts. Naiqama cut through for another well-taken try after three sets on Leeds’ line and was in again two minutes later to complete a superb hat-trick.
Naiqama terrorised Leeds’ left-flank either side of half-time, but Handley did manage to get over again eight minutes from time, off another Hurrell pass after Myler and Liam Sutcliffe had handled.
That moved him level with Niall Evalds at the top of Super League’s list of try scorers, a fine achievement for a player in a struggling team.
There was more consolation four minutes from time when Briscoe was tackled just short, but did well to get an offload away before being dragged into touch and Newman took it to go over for a try which Martin improved.
What might have happened had Saints enjoyed an equal share of the ball is a frightening thought. The penalty count finished nine-four in Leeds’ favour, four-two to them in the first half.