EVEN the absence of seven St Helens players, who will probably grace Wembley next weekend, was not enough to help Leeds Rhinos edge the win they so desired last night.
That is no disgrace on Richard Agar’s side; their opponents, afterall, are now fully 16 points clear at the top of Super League and were able to move through the gears here even without so many rested steller regulars.
Still, having gone in at half-time at 10-10, Agar must have been hopeful of pressing on and gaining the third successive win that would have all but ended their continuing relegation fears.
Leeds – who remain four points clear of bottom-placed London Broncos – had caused Saints plenty of problems and, with more assuredness, would have surely been ahead, possibly by some distance. If, buts and maybes, though. It has been the story of much of their season.
Instead, rather than building on those first-half endeavours, they reappeared for the second period in the worst possible fashion.
The hosts quickly conceded back-to-back tries, Zeb Taia, the muscular second-row crossing both times on his 300rd career appearance, and, though England centre Mark Percival only improved one of them, Saints had seized the initiative with a 22-10 lead.
He added a penalty soon after and when Leeds once more crumbled twice in quick succession around the hour mark – Kevin Naiqama scoring the second and third tries of his hat-trick – the game was over.
This Leeds side has clearly found some spirit under Agar, though, illustrated when they finished the stronger, Ash Handley adding his second try of the night and 21st of the campaign before young centre Harry Newman also crossed.
As treble-chasing Saints move on to prepare for Warrington Wolves in the Challenge Cup final, Rhinos now have plenty more time to prepare for their next assignment.
That, of course, is one they will be targeting as must-win; London away on Sunday September 1.
Saints left out the likes of England internationals James Roby, Alex Walmsley and Tommy Makinson as well as star full-back Lachlan Coote with Wembley in mind. And Leeds will realise this morning that they should have done more early on to cause some damage of their own.
They had ample opportunity to strike as some of Saints’ younger players, like Jack Welsby, the England Academy full-back, initially struggled to get to grips with things.
However, Rhinos continually failed to force pressure, instead just forcing the pass when it was never likely, and letting their rivals off the hook.
Stand-off Robert Lui had some shambolic moments in amongst that and, for all Adam Cuthbertson was doing brilliantly with his offload game, there was no one patient enough to make the most of his promptings.
When Rhyse Martin became the latest player to push a play when security was required, Saints struck via Regan Grace’s scrappy score, Percival converting. Admittedly, Leeds responded well, Richie Myler stepping through to score in the 27th minute, Martin improving.
Handley had an effort ruled out due to a Konrad Hurrell pass that was deemed forward but he was not denied the next time the Tongan centre squeezed a pass out, although Myler’s earlier longer pass was the catalyst.
Typically, though, as has been the case so often this term, Leeds erred in the restart set.
Cuthbertson fumbled playing the ball and Welsby – who impressed here when England Academy beat Australia Schoolboys in December – held his nerve to deliver the killer ball for Naiqama to get his first.
Percival hit an upright with the kick to leave it level at the break but when Luke Briscoe twice failed to clear the danger from Theo Fages’s kick, Taia got his first in the 45th minute. His second was a soft try to concede, too, with the former Kiwi back-row hopefully kicking ahead and seeing Grace reach the ball.
Jack Walker and Briscoe should have had the Wales winger wrapped up but he somehow squeezed an offload out for Taia to score.
Naiqama finished off his treble with similar ease before that late Rhinos rally.
St Helens prop Kyle Amor, meanwhile, might have a worry in Wembley week; he accidentally ran into referee Chris Kendall in the 76th minute.
With the match review panel clamping down on such incidents this year, the former Wakefield Trinity player will be hoping common sense prevails and no ban is forthcoming.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker; L Briscoe, Newman, Hurrell, Handley; Lui, Myler; Cuthbertson, Lunt, Seumanufagai, Martin, Ferres, Merrin. Substitutes: Dwyer, Sutcliffe, Peteru, Donaldson.
St Helens: Welsby; Costello, naiqama, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Thompson, Smith, Lees, Taia, Peyroux, Bentley. Substitutes: Amor, Ashworth, Batchelor, Eaves.
Referee: Chris Kendall (Huddersfield).