Leeds Rhinos put an end to St. Helens’ unbeaten start to the season as they fought to a 28-20 win at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
League leaders Saints were huge favourites ahead of the game after a fast start to the season had seen them win their opening 5 fixtures and the likes of Ben Barba, Mark Percival and young half-back Danny Richardson shine and form a dangerous attacking force.
Leeds, missing a number of key players including forwards Adam Cuthbertson and Stevie Ward, had struggled to find any real rhythm in their opening 4 league games and were fancied by many to be made light work of by the in-form Saints.
However, Leeds showed the Champion spirit that took them to Grand Final glory in 2017 to defy the pre-game predictions and take the two points from a game that could prove to be the one that kick-starts their season.
Irish forward Anthony Mullally opened the scoring just under 10 minutes into the game, before Ben Barba responded for Saints shortly after.
A Danny Richardson penalty was followed by a fantastic Adam Swift try after the ball was brilliantly kept alive by the winger, who combined with Richardson and Makinson to find a way over in the corner.
The Rhinos responded well to falling behind and recorded their second try 5 minutes before the break. Joel Moon and winger Tom Briscoe, making his 100th appearance for Leeds, took advantage of a gap left in the defensive line by the injured Tommy Makinson by racing down field and sending Richie Myler over for his first Leeds try to level the scores.
The two sides traded penalty goals early in the second forty as the tight nature of the game continued, and it wasn’t until the hour mark that the next try was scored. Ash Handley, filling in for the injured Liam Sutcliffe at left centre, pounced on a loose ball after a Myler kick caused confusion in the defence to touchdown and keep up his fine try scoring record against the Saints.
Handley added his second of the game 5 minutes later to stretch the lead to 8 points. Saints refused to go down without a fight and with 10 minutes remaining Regan Grace was released down the left and beat full-back Jack Walker before feeding former NRL star Barba who escaped the attention of two defenders and to score under the posts.
But, the game was effectively put to bed two minutes later when hooker Matt Parcell darted over from dummy half and cleverly got the ball down. Myler, taking over kicking duties from Watkins as the Leeds captain had been forced off with a head knock, re-established the 8-point gap from the tee.
In the remaining minutes, St. Helens attempted to claw their way back into it again, but Leeds held out to secure a confidence boosting victory.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the win for the Rhinos was undoubtedly the fight shown by the players. Already depleted, Leeds lost Ashton Golding after just 5 minutes and then Watkins later on to failed concussion tests, leaving just 2 substitutes to choose from. Considering the bench at the start of the match was made up of two 19-year old forwards in Mikolaj Oledzki and Cameron Smith, who had made just 7 Super League appearances between them, 18-year old Jack Walker and Josh Walters, coming away from the Totally Wicked Stadium with maximum points is quite an achievement.
The forwards especially put in a huge shift for their side. Brad Singleton, Brett Delaney, Jamie Jones-Buchanan et al all made vital and telling contributions, while academy product Cameron Smith made a crucial try saving tackle in the dying minutes as the home side looked to take it down to the wire. Polish-born Oldezki also got good time on the field as he capably filled in as the more experienced players took a well-earned breather.
It was the second big win for Leeds in just over a week following their narrow win over Hull FC at Headingley last Thursday. The fixture list meant March was always going to be a tough for the Rhinos with a number of huge games, but with 2 wins from 2 so far in the month things are certainly looking good. Castleford at Elland Road next Friday will be another energy sapping clash, but the Rhinos will feel they are well placed to win it, especially if they get a few bodies back from injury.
On the injury front, the Rhinos are likely to be without Ashton Golding and Kallum Watkins for their meeting with rivals Castleford after their head injuries, Brian McDermott confirmed in his post-match press conference.
Leeds will now seek to push on from this fine result and prove they are one of the top sides in the league again this season after some doubts over how good they are. Should Leeds produce more committed defensive efforts like the one against Saints and develop their attack, then there is no reason why they can’t be challenging for silverware once again in 2018.