LEEDS RHINOS endured the predictable post-Wembley hangover last night as champions St Helens ended the Challenge Cup winners’ seven-game victorious run.
However, as long as they do not repeat what they did 12 months ago after lifting the trophy – losing four successive games, starting with Saints – they should still take their second piece of silverware this season and hoist the League Leaders’ Shield. There was nothing too alarming here to suggest that will not happen.
Yes, Leeds made too many mistakes but they were missing three pivotal players from the side that vanquished Hull KR 50-0 a week ago – Zak Hardaker, Kallum Watkins and Rob Burrow – through minor injuries.
They trailed only 14-12 at the break and were competitive throughout but simply came up against a side who, frankly, needed this win more than the West Yorkshire club.
Saints had lost all three Super 8s games since falling to Leeds in the Challenge Cup semi-final to leave their top-four hopes delicately balanced.
However, with James Roby, Luke Walsh and Travis Burns bringing all their experience to bear, the latter creating a sublime try for Adam Quinlan that settled it in the 58th minute, they got their title defence back on track, moving four points clear of fifth-placed Castleford where they head on Thursday.
Even then, Leeds – who saw Ash Golding, on his 19th birthday, perform superbly as Hardaker’s stand-in at full-back – had them nervously holding on at the end.
Leading 26-12, Saints’ Jordan Turner had a ‘try’ disallowed in the 68th minute after failing to ground properly.
Just moments later, Tom Briscoe squeezed out an offload for Kevin Sinfield - who put in a great stint at hooker - to scamper away and send Ryan Hall over at the other end, Sinfield adding his third conversion.
Trailing by just eight points, Headingley came alive. There was no late drama, though, Brian McDermott’s side lacking the spark of such as Burrow or Watkins to take Saints to the edge and, instead, Jon Wilkin’s late 100th career try finished them off.
It all means second-placed Wigan Warriors can close to within two points with three games to go if they defeat Catalans Dragons at Millwall today.
Jordan Lilley, also celebrating his 19th birthday yesterday, made only his second appearance for the club while Jimmy Keinhorst came in at centre for Watkins.
There was perhaps a sign that Leeds would be far from their slick best when they conceded a try after only three minutes.
Danny McGuire, of all people, spilled coming away from dummy-half 15m from his own line and Saints needed no further invitation to score, Tommy Makinson mopping up in the corner for Walsh to convert.
Golding was held up over the Saints line, though, soon after following McGuire’s smart grubber and Adam Cuthbertson almost spun over only to be denied by Wilkin’s disguised rip.
They did cross in the 18th minute when Keinhorst finished, collecting McGuire’s cut-out pass and evading the onrushing Adam Swift and then Josh Jones, too, for Sinfield to level.
Parity did not last long, however, mainly due to Cuthbertson and his Australian team-mate Mitch Garbutt getting befuddled and each letting the other deal with the kick-off.
Neither did, and from the resulting drop-out, when Garbutt compounded the error with a high tackle on Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Saints gained sufficient possession to work their way over eventually via Jones.
Referee James Child awarded the try but sent it upstairs. There was no clear view that the Exeter Chiefs-bound centre did get the ball down rather than on top of Keinhorst’s leg but the try was awarded and Walsh converted from the touchline once more.
Walsh added a penalty on the half-hour after Jamie Peacock –perhaps still dazed having gone off following a heavy collision with Roby earlier in the half – picked up Brad Singleton’s fumbled ball when clearly stood in an offside position.
Leeds did not stem those sorts of basic mistakes, though, even Lance Todd Trophy winner Briscoe coming up with a soft drop near his own line. The thing with Leeds, though, and one of the reasons why they are favourites to win the title, is that they can generally defend such errors.
They duly did and, instead, went into the break just two points behind after Mitch Achurch squeezed over from dummy-half following Golding’s dazzling dart.
Again, it did not look like the Australian had control of the ball but, in the modern-age, you do not truly have to.
Saints, crucially, scored first in the second period when Swift broke through Brett Delaney and Sinfield in midfield to race clear.
Golding, whose positioning was top class all night, hauled him down but Walsh stepped over from close range.
Then came Burns’s stellar moment, the former Hull KR stand-off delicately tipping an inside pass to Quinlan who surged through on a quality diagonal to the line from 20m out, Walsh finishing with six goals from as many attempts as Leeds lost for the first time since July 9.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding; Briscoe, Keinhorst, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Garbutt, Cuthbertson, Peacock, Ablett, Ward, Delaney. Substitutes: Singleton, Achurch, Lilley, Leuluai.
St Helens: Quinlan; Makinson, Percival, Jones, Swift; Burns, Walsh; Amor, Roby, Savelio, Wilkin, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Turner. Substitutes: Walmsley, Flanagan, Richards, Greenwood.
Referee: J Child (Dewsbury).