Saints were treble-winners in 2022 and clearly remain the team to beat, but Rhinos showed how far they have come since last October’s 28-0 Grand Final defeat by the same opposition.
They led from the 15th minute to the 48th and Saints didn’t go ahead until early in the final quarter.
There was no doubt Saints deserved their victory, scoring four tries to Leeds’ one, but it was a tighter contest than the 18-8 scoreline suggests and, had they taken their chances, Rhinos could have won.
Saints’ final touchdown came in the closing moments, but they had been under heavy pressure on their own line just before that, when a converted try would probably have sent the final into golden-point.
It was a good occasion for the sport and the official attendance of 5,888 – taken after 65 minutes – was a record for a women’s game in this country.
Saints, last year’s treble-winners, had blown away every other team they had come up against this season and another rout – in front of the live BBC 2 cameras – would not have shown women’s rugby league in a good light.
Leeds’ performance, however, suggested 2022 won’t be a one-horse race.
Castleford Tigers’ voluntary relegation to Super League’s second tier leaves only five teams in the top division and the competition’s lack of strength in depth is a concern, particularly in a World Cup year when the top players will need as many tough matches as they can get.
Saints are an exceptional side, but Rhinos have closed the gap since the end of last season and have the potential to get better.
Rhinos loose-forward Zoe Hornby’s try was the first points Saints have conceded this season, in their sixth match.
They defended superbly after that, which they had to, but Leeds were left to ponder a number of ‘what ifs?’
Saints were rattled after Hornby’s try, which put them in an unfamiliar situation of being behind.
For the rest of the half, Leeds were the better team and if they had grabbed a second try it might have been a different story.
Nine times out of 10, Elychia Watson would have scored from Danielle Anderson’s terrific offload just short of the line. Agonisingly, she couldn’t hang on.
Rhinos’ kicking game was excellent in the first half and it looked like a hanging bomb from Courtney Winfield-Hill had put her fellow former Woman of Steel Georgia Roche in, but Bethany Stott somehow managed to come away with the ball.
At the start of the second half, when Rhinos led 8-4, Watson was inches away from scoring from Winfield-Hill’s pass, but Saints full-back Rebecca Rotheram pulled her down short of the line.
With the scores level on the hour mark, the ever-dangerous Fran Goldthorpe weaved through Saints’ defence on an outstanding run, but she too couldn’t quite go the distance.
Referee Liam Rush had allowed the advantage following an obstruction in back play, but then awarded the penalty and, from an angle to the right of the posts, Winfield-Hill sent her kick wide.
Crucially, the ball didn’t go dead, Saints surged upfield in the set from the tap and reigning Woman of Steel Jodie Cunningham crossed for the try which finally edged Saints ahead.
Two of the tries Leeds conceded were from kicks; Zoe Harris put Leah Burke over six minutes before the break and Eboni Partington levelled the scores with a scrappy effort eight minutes after the interval.
That was a poor one to concede. A kick by Stott – who landed one goal from four attempts – was fumbled by Tasha Gaines, Chloe Kerrigan and Keara Bennett couldn’t pick up and the Saints winger fell on it to score the first of a brace which she completed late on.
Leeds did have the consolation of the player of the match award, which was won by Hornby.
Aside from her try, when she rampaged over from 30 metres out, the 23-year-old turned in a storming performance, which was one of several in blue and amber.
Hannah Butcher, a former stand-off who has been playing at loose-forward this year, was switched into the centres and did an excellent job of keeping Cunningham quiet in the first half. Bennett was very lively out of acting-half, particularly early on and both starting props, Anderson and Aimee Staveley, really took the game to Saints in the middle.
Coach Lois Forsell made some tactical switches, including starting with Goldthorp at full-back and Caitlin Beevers in the three-quarters.
There’s unlikely to be a better ball-and-all tackle this season than the one by Beevers which wrapped up Rotheram on the last 20 metres from Rhinos’ line in the first half.
Rhinos clearly benefited from having had a tough game last time out, in their tense two-point semi-final win over York City Knights.
They are still a relatively new team, with additions in key positions and several players finding their feet after long injury layoffs and will feel they have a lot more to offer.