Leeds Rhinos were made to pay the full price for centre Joel Moon’s first-half dismissal as St Helens earned a precious win that takes them a step closer to securing top spot in the First Utility Super League.
The Challenge Cup winners were forced to play for an hour with 12 men after centre Moon was sent off by referee Richard Silverwood midway through the first half for an illegal shoulder charge on St Helens centre Mark Percival, who had to be substituted.
With captain Kevin Sinfield and stalwart Jamie Peacock at the heart of a superb defensive effort, the Rhinos looked capable of hanging on, but the task proved beyond them as Saints came from 12-2 down to snatch a one-point victory that takes them five points clear of nearest rivals Wigan.
Stand-off Lance Hohaia was St Helens’ hero on his return to the side with a drop goal seven minutes from the end which followed two quick tries against a tiring Leeds defence by Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and James Roby.
Now only Castleford can prevent Nathan Brown’s men from clinching the league leaders’ shield, but they will need to win their last three games and hope Saints slip up in both their last two.
Leeds, who were without two of their Cup final heroes, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, because of injury have now lost three successive league matches to take some of the shine off their Wembley triumph.
Saints took the lead with a fifth-minute penalty from Percival, but then spent most of the first half on defence.
With hooker Paul Aiton revelling in his rare opportunity to start a match and Peacock and Jamie Jones-Buchanan tearing into the Saints defence, the home side were full of attacking threats and that did not change even when they were reduced to 12 men with Moon shown a red card for his ugly challenge on Percival.
Sinfield kicked his side into a 4-2 lead with a couple of penalties and the Rhinos scored the only try of the first half on 29 minutes when Brett Delaney’s probing run stretched the St Helens defence and half-back Liam Sutcliffe went past a wrong-footed McCarthy-Scarsbrook to touch down.
Sinfield’s conversion made it 10-2 and he added another two points with a third penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Saints rarely threatened and when a break out of defence from winger Tom Makinson eventually set up a promising position for them, they failed to make the most of it when Jordan Turner got in the way of team-mate Willie Manu’s dash for the line.
The visitors improved dramatically in the second half, with full-back Shannon McDonnell making an impact on attack in his second appearance for the club.
Leeds defended magnificently, though, and Sinfield temporarily relieved the pressure a 40-20 kick.
However, the momentum was firmly with Saints and it was no surprise when they eventually prised open the home side’s defence, with Hohia putting McCarthy-Scarsbrook through a gap for a try on 62 minutes.
Turner fluffed the comparatively easy goal-kick, but Makinson was on target seven minutes later to convert Roby’s try from dummy half to tie the scores and Hohaia kept his nerve to land the all-important drop goal.
Reflecting on Moon’s red card, Leeds coach Brian McDermott said he had yet to study the incident, but claimed: “It didn’t look like he made contact with the head.
“If he hasn’t that’s a big call. It would be a wrong call in my opinion. I thought it was the difference between the two teams.”
McDermott congratulated Saints’ coach Nathan Brown for adjusting his side’s style of play during the interval to exploit their extra man.
“He did a cracking job at half-time,” McDermott said.
“It has to be said we made a couple of errors and we didn’t hold on to the ball, but how much can you ask of a group of 12 men in a game as intense as that?”
Rhinos are now fifth in the table, with just two games – away at Wigan Warriors and Hull – remaining in the regular season.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, Sutcliffe, Bailey, Aiton, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Delaney. Substitutes: Leuluai, R. Ward, Achurch, Singleton.
St Helens: McDonnell, Makinson, Percival, Jones, Dawson, Hohaia, Wellens, Amor, Roby, Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Laffranchi, Turner. Substitutes: Masoe, Soliola, Manu, Flanagan.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (RFL).