TWO-try Zak Hardaker helped Leeds Rhinos win a typically absorbing and frenetic Tetley’s Challenge Cup fifth round tie with St Helens this afternoon.
The England full-back was to the fore as Brian McDermott’s side secured their place in Monday’s quarter-final draw and kept alive hopes of ending their long wait for the famous trophy.
This game, given the red-hot early season form of Saints, was seen as the major obstacle in their path and, as expected, they were pushed close despite the eventual final scoreline suggesting otherwise.
With Leeds just 20-12 ahead and under intense pressure from Saints, it was not until Danny McGuire scampered over in the 74th minute that they finally settled it.
But it was the least the Super League leaders - who lost half-back Rob Burrow to a worrying injury in the second period - deserved after an epic performance from their pack and, in particular, England winger Ryan Hall.
Leeds, who have lost six finals since their last win in 1999, had forged 12-6 ahead by the break with Hardaker’s brace, although his international colleague had been the game’s outstanding player with a brilliant 40 minutes.
The winger was too powerful for Saints who struggled to keep hold of him wherever he took possession while his defensive alertness proved useful, too, on the rare occasions the visitors managed to threaten.
Hardaker’s first came in the fifth minute when he accelerated onto a ball 15m from the Saints line and had enough muscle to bump off Jonny Lomax and stretch over.
Sinfield tagged on the first of his six goals but Nathan Brown’s side - who have now lost three consecutive games after winning their opening nine of 2014 - responded against the run of play when Sia Soliola’s smart offload unleashed Mark Percival 60m out for Adam Swift to finish off.
Luke Walsh levelled but it looked like the Australian scrum-half then gifted McGuire a try when losing the ball after being tackled by the England scrum-half.
The video officials ruled otherwise but the home side did finally make their pressure tell three minutes before the break when Hall - typcially - bulldozed his way through before finding a great pass as he fell to the floor for Hardaker to sprint in again.
Sinfield converted and added a penalty early in the second half before McGuire’s perfect short pass put Carl Ablett into space.
Burrow was reined in by the Saints’ covering defence but, on the next play and last tackle, Joel Moon did shimmy over to give Leeds some daylight, Sinfield improving the 48th minute score.
Saints have a habit of forcing their way back into contests this year, though, and warned Leeds of that when Josh Jones crept over off Lomax’s simple pass besides the posts five minutes later.
Walsh narrowed the gap further with his conversion and a succession of penalties against Leeds meant McDermott’s side were on the back foot for a long period.
Losing Burrow - whose kicking had been instrumental - added to their concerns but their defence proved tight even after the increasingly dangeorous Walsh had produced a 40/20 kick.
They held out in that resulting set yet again and, instead, Hardaker found Kallum Watkins who showed great skill and pace to break out from his own half and feed McGuire.
Fittingly, veteran prop Jamie Peacock - who had been quality up front once more - dummied his way over at the death for Sinfield to maintain his 100 per cent record with the boot.
Leeds are back at Headingley on Friday for another potentially epic game against champions and reigning Cup holders Wigan Warriors.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkons, Moon, Hall; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Sinfield, Peacock, Ablett, Achurch, Delaney. Substitutes: Kirke, Sutcliffe, Singleton, Clarkson.
St Helens: Lomax; Makinson, Turner, Percival, Swift; Wilkin, Walsh; Amor, Roby, Walmsley, McCarthy-Scrasbrook, Soliola, Jones. Substitutes: Wellens, Masoe, Greenwood, Richards.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield)