Leeds Rhinos 16 St Helens 30: Hardaker proves he can mix it with the big boys despite defeat

HE MAY have just played his first Super League game but Zak Hardaker was mature and wise enough to realise Leeds Rhinos were defeated by the better side on Saturday night.

The young winger, recalled from Featherstone where he is on dual registration, also knew the reason why.

Referee Richard Silverwood came up with a series of dubious decisions – the first three tries should not have been allowed, two for Saints and one for Leeds – but, ultimately, St Helens’ superior defence and Rhinos’ inability to convert chances into points saw them lose out, not the official’s errors.

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The margin of defeat did not truly illustrate the closeness of the encounter, an absorbing game of high quality in parts. But there could be few complaints from the vanquished hosts.

“Their defence was brilliant,” Hardaker told the Yorkshire Post. “It was just all up in one line all together and so tough to break.

“That’s when we tried to throw balls out and unfortunately it didn’t really come off.

“We tried to throw too much about but we had to.

“On another day a bit of fortune might have gone our way and we might have come away with a win. But Saints were terrific and it was the right result at the end of it.”

The 19-year-old, who joined from Featherstone over the winter before being moved back there on loan, managed to score on his debut with an excellent finish, all be it off Kallum Watkins’ forward pass.

That 45th minute effort put Leeds 10-6 ahead and there was a sense they could then go on and exert a growing influence.

However, St Helens, with James Roby again outstanding, repelled everything thrown at them with a commanding and steely defensive performance.

In comparison, Leeds’ was too flaky, their early resilience faltering in the final quarter as Royce Simmons’s side executed with far more finesse and composure.

Ex-Castleford centre Michael Shenton did brilliantly to rise above Ryan Hall to gather a Lee Gaskell crossfield kick and, although Leeds responded when Paul McShane burrowed over and Kevin Sinfield’s conversion put them back in front, Saints powered home.

The decisive score came on 63 minutes and originated from a cheap Watkins penalty, the talented centre punished for passing off the floor.

Saints used the p osition to strike through Francis Meli, the powerful winger who played at centre himself, and they never faltered from thereon in.

It became clear it would not be the Yorkshire club’s night when the usually infallible Kevin Sinfield dropped a standard pass direct from a scrum, the sort of soft mistake the Leeds captain has perhaps endured only five times or so in his entire career.

Their defensive shape deteriorated as well. Rob Burrow called his team-mates furiously to come across to the left hand side of their goal-line as just he and Hall were left marooned to protect a huge expanse with more Saints players congregating.

The plea went unheard though and the Merseysiders, with half-back Jonny Lomax excellent in the absence of suspended Kyle Eastmond, easily exposed the resulting holes, Paul Wellens sliding through before Jamie Foster rounded things off at the death with another well-executed try.

He landed the touchline conversion, maintaining his 100 per-cent record, and Leeds were left ruing their own missed opportunities.

It had taken 21 minutes for anyone to score, Foster getting his first, but England winger Hall finished well just before the break following Danny Buderus’s class pass.

Sinfield kicked to level at 4-4 and Hardaker had also had an earlier try disallowed for placing his foot in touch.

He impressed though and, in the absence of injured Ben Jones-Bishop, who will be missing for four months, and Lee Smith, showed signs of his undoubted potential.

“It was a tough game but as a debut for myself I really enjoyed it out there,” he said, refusing to allow the result take the gloss off his bow.

“Playing at Headingley is what I’ve always wanted to do. I got a try as well and really enjoyed the whole day. It was a really good experience.

“Obviously, the team performance was not that good so I could have got away with a couple more tries but never mind, I’m sure it will come.”

Hardaker does not know yet whether he will be called upon for Sunday’s fixture at Wakefield or whether he will return to Post Office Road.

“I’d loved to stay at Leeds as long as I can,” he said. “I’ll try to do my best here but if have to play for Featherstone that’s how it goes and I’ll do my best for them as well while showing Leeds what I can do.

“There are going to be opportunities here for me and if they come, I will take them.

“If not I’ll take my chances at Fev and show what can do there.

“It was a surprise to play. I knew Bish was out and having an op but I wasn’t aware that Lee Smith was inured.

“The fans were terrific – it’s a big step from Featherstone to Headingley – and it was a really fast game.

“Every tackle was a big hit but I’ve got to take it if I want to play in Super League. I’ll remember this night for years to come.”

Leeds: Webb; Hardaker, Watkins, Senior, Hall; Sinfield, Burrow; Jones-Buchanan, Buderus, Kirke, Hauraki, Lauitiiti, Ablett. Substitutes: Cross, Clarkson, Burgess, McShane.

St Helens: Wellens; Gardner, Shenton, Meli, Foster; Gaskell, Lomax; Perry, Roby, Graham, Clough, Flannery, Puletua. Substitutes: Moore, Ashurst, Wheeler, Magennis.

Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield)