HOLDERS Leeds Rhinos are heading back to Wembley for the fifth time in six seasons after seeing off St Helens in a magnificent semi-final last night.
Rhinos deserved their 24-14 win, scoring four tries to three, but Saints played a full part, putting Leeds under huge pressure for a spell after it looked like they might get blown away.
It was a tremendous advert for rugby league in the new Friday night slot on BBC2.
Rhinos led 12-0 after 22 minutes, but the Super League champions hung in with real character.
Leeds’ pace began to drop, but their defence forced Saints into big errors and it took a sensational try just before the interval to give the red and whites a lifeline.
When Jamie Peacock scored Rhinos’ third try early in the second half the holders seemed to be in command, but back-to-back tries cut the lead to just four points with more than a quarter of the game left.
Rhinos struggled to put pressure on Saints’ line in the second 40, but a rare attack with 14 minutes left produced the decisive try for Kallum Watkins.
He was a fitting match winner, but Leeds didn’t have a weak link. The props were magnificent and the backline outstanding.
Zak Hardaker was a rock at full-back and Joel Moon, the other centre, had a stormer. Crucially, Leeds’ bench also contributed, Rob Burrow providing the final pass for Watkins’ try and playing big minutes after Paul Aiton was taken off early with concussion.
Saints have yet to lead against Rhinos this season, but had some fine individuals, particularly Alex Walmsley and Andre Savelio.
Leeds went ahead after three minutes, after Ryan Hall had won a penalty by running at a defender in an offside position.
Saints’ defence did well to shut Watkins down following the kick to touch, but then Adam Cuthbertson offloaded to Aiton.
He went left to Carl Ablett, but the play was then switched right by Moon, he found Hardaker and the full-back straightened up and stepped Luke Walsh for a fine try.
Moon returned in the left-centre, taking over from Jimmy Keinhorst who dropped to the bench.
In other changes from last week’s win over Catalans, Danny McGuire was back in the halves and Cuthbertson – at prop – and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, loose-forward, both started, with Burrow and Kylie Leuluai among the substitutes.
The unlucky player was Brad Singleton, who was left out as Keinhorst was preferred among the substitutes.
Leeds did all the pressing in the opening exchanges and Hardaker went close to a second try, but couldn’t ground his own kick over Saints’ line.
After 12 minutes, James Roby stole the ball from Peacock, 30 metres out from Saints’ line and in front of the posts and Sinfield added the goal to his earlier conversion.
Moments later McGuire cross-kicked on the last to Hall, but he spilled the ball just short of the line.
That came after some powerful work by Peacock, who had Saints on the back foot throughout his first spell.
Then Aiton, Moon and Watkins gave Tom Briscoe a run, but his kick infield was too strong and ran dead.
It took Saints 19 minutes to carry the ball into Rhinos’ half, which is an indication of how strong Leeds’ start was.
On 22 minutes Saints’ first penalty, followed by a fierce run from Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook took them close to Leeds’ line for the first time.
But McCarthy-Scarsbrook then knocked on and on the counter a typical run from Burrow had Saints back-pedalling, Sinfield hit a gap and found Watkins and he ducked out of a tackle before supplying Moon.
The centre had an overlap and he ran diagonally to the line, then some footwork took him over, though Sinfield’s conversion attempt bounced away off a post.
Cuthbertson lost possession in the set from the re-start, then Leeds were penalised in front of their own posts. It looked like McCarthy-Scarsbrook would stretch over, but he knocked on just short in Leuluai’s tackle.
Saints had another near miss on 32, after Sinfield knocked on at a lay-the-ball 20 out, when Joe Greenwood spelled the ball in Watkins’ tremendous tackle.
It looked like Leeds would go in 12-0 up, but Saints got back into the game with a stunning try on the stroke of half-time.
Walmsley’s barnstorming run did the initial damage, Adam Quinlan carried things on and his offload was well finished by Mark Percival at the corner.
Walmsley’s return, after a breather on the bench, played a big part in earning Saints some momentum before the interval.
Another big moment was McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s guided-missile-style hit on Hardaker after he had taken a high kick 10 metres out.
Half-time came when Saints were getting on a roll, but a remarkable try swung the game back Leeds’ way six minutes after the restart. Hardaker made a fine catch, Hall’s run carried Leeds upfield and then Watkins and Burrow combined to find Peacock.
He was 25 metres out, at an angle to the posts, but charged towards the line, put on a couple of steps and stretched over, with referee Ben Thaler floundering in his wake.
The try was confirmed by video official James Child and Sinfield’s conversion made it 18-4, but Saints responded quickly when Roby’s kick on the last was collected by Savelio and he plunged over. Thaler handed it on as a try and Child agreed. though there was a suspicion he was short of the line.
If Thaler had said no try it may not have been given, but Walsh converted and the game was back in the fire.
Even more so moments later. Burrow’s knock-on gave Saints a scrum in their half, they created an overlap and Percival squeezed over for his second after Roby and Savelio had handled.
Only a brilliant reaction catch by Moon, from Percival’s kick following Walsh’s bomb, preserved Leeds’ advantage and it was nip and tuck for a spell.
With 14 minutes left Sinfield’s bomb was taken by Quinlan, but he was tackled in goal by Hardaker.
Sinfield just managed to gather the drop out and on the powerplay Burrow, McGuire and Sinfield went right to Watkins and he sliced through for a try which Sinfield converted to complete the scoring.
Rhinos lost Jones-Buchanan nine minutes from time.
The veteran forward, in his second comeback game following a hamstring injury, badly hurt his knee in a tackle by Travis Burns.
He was given oxygen on the field and stretchered off.
The penalty count finished 4-3 in Saints’ favour (2-2 in the first half).
Thaler made a few mistakes, but handled it well overall.