THE Leeds Rhinos fan who wagered £20,000 on his side to win this semi-final certainly earned every last penny of his winnings sweating through this last night.
Ladbrokes, sponsors of the Challenge Cup, revealed on the eve of the tie that a punter, who remained anonymous, had placed the biggest bet of the competition so far at odds of 8-13.
Many of those reading this -– especially if social media is anything to go by – were incredulous; Leeds, as holders and Super League leaders, were certainly favourites to progress to Wembley for a fifth time in six years, but it was far from a given even if they had put 40 points on their rivals in both previous meetings this season.
After all, their opponents St Helens are reigning league champions, just a point behind them in the table and not without pedigree themselves in the famous tournament.
And so it proved as the two great sides produced arguably the best game of the season so far, delivering a thrillingly intense match full of drama and no little skill which proved a deserving occasion to mark the first Challenge Cup semi-final to be held on a Friday night.
It was an epic, worthy of any Wembley final itself.
Furthermore, anyone watching rugby league for the first time on BBC2 last night must surely be hooked after witnessing Saints – seemingly outclassed following a stunning Leeds start – battle back from 18-4 down to close to within just four points.
That punter must have been a nervous wreck thinking about his £32,000 return as resurgent Saints, despite losing key forwards Joe Greenwood and Atela Vea to injuries, rallied and threatened to shock the holders.
Eventually, Kallum Watkins, the stylish England centre, brought desperate Leeds out of a growing maelstrom with a lovely finish in the 66th minute to secure their place at Wembley, the only downside a serious knee injury for Jamie Jones-Buchanan, their veteran forward only just back from a lengthy period out.
The West Yorkshire club will face the winners of this lunchtime’s other semi-final between Hull KR and Warrington Wolves on August 29 and, on this evidence, with a ‘treble’ still in sight, will be odds-on to win that too, whoever they play.
Brian McDermott’s side – so swift, slick and dynamic – were simply brilliant in that opening spell and showed great resilience to dig in when it mattered most.
They opened the scoring after just three minutes when Zak Hardaker marked his 150th career game with a smart finish, stepping past Luke Walsh to straighten up after Joel Moon had weaved cross field.
Rhinos started so fast that Saints did not only look visibly shattered but utterly stunned, too. Alex Walmsley, their huge prop who has caused havoc this season, came off after barely 10 minutes, shaking his head almost in disbelief having been run ragged in defence by Leeds’s relentless offloading game. He was not the only one to feel the pace, Walsh, Saints’ influential Australian scrum-half, obviously targeted by the constant hard-running raids down his left channel.
Jamie Peacock and Hardaker came close to further scores, as did Ryan Hall and Watkins, but, though Kevin Sinfield added a penalty to his conversion, somehow Leeds did not cross again until the 24th minute.
Rob Burrow was the instigator having come on for Paul Aiton, the brilliant Papuan hooker who had seemed to be the heartbeat of Leeds’s near perpetual motion.
When you are as jaded as the Saints forwards must have been, the last thing you want is Burrow – all dynamism and boundless energy – entering the fray.
He cut free from halfway, found Sinfield and, in turn Watkins, who delivered to the left for Moon to expose the space.
Sinfield missed the standard conversion attempt, however, and perhaps that is what offered Saints some much-needed hope.
Adam Cuthbertson, the prop who plays more like a No 6, was rattled by Mose Masoe who, like Vea and Andre Savelio, brought real punch off the bench.
They still had barely had any possession in the Leeds half, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook twice wasting what little scraps they did have. But Walsh became increasingly threatening and, two minutes before the break, they finally got off the mark when a revived Walmsley blasted down the middle for Adam Quinlan to expertly find Mark Percival in the corner.
Peacock, the 37-year-old prop playing his last Challenge Cup semi-final before retiring, looked to have regained the initiative when he latched onto another piercing run from the excellent Watkins to surge over from 30m in the 46th minute, Sinfield making it 18-4.
But then it was Saints’ turn to take command with Savelio, the 20-year-old Academy product playing like a seasoned international, leading the charge.
He crossed in the 52nd minute after an admittedly fortuitous ricochet from James Roby’s grubber and, with Walsh improving, they added another almost straight after when Burrow fumbled at the play-the-ball.
This time Savelio showed his deft side with a well-timed pass that left Moon rooted and Percival sliding in for his second, but it would not be enough to deter Leeds who prospered again in their record-breaking 46th Challenge Cup semi-final appearance.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Cuthbertson, Aiton, Peacock, Delaney, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Burrow, Leuluai, Keinhorst, Garbutt.
St Helens: Quinlan; Dawson, Percival, Turner, Swift; Burns, Walsh; Amor, ROby, Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Greenwood, Flanagan. Substitutes: Jones, Masoe, Savelio, Vea.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield)