St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham led the praise for former England captain Kevin Sinfield after the out-going Leeds skipper helped deliver the knockout blow in a thrilling Super League semi-final.
Saints were holding onto a 13-8 lead on 66 minutes when Sinfield produced his first 40-20 kick of the season to give his side possession close to their tryline and two minutes later winger Ryan Hall forced his way over for the all-important try.
Sinfield then kept his nerve with the conversion to give his side the lead for the first time and Kallum Watkins’ last-minute try put the seal on a 20-13 victory that sets up a Grand Final showdown with Wigan at Old Trafford next Saturday.
“I do genuinely believe we were the best side for a large quantity of that game but Kevin Sinfield is just a great player and he comes up with a big play,” Cunningham said. “The momentum swing from the 40-20 was just massive.
“He’s a great experienced campaigner who has played a million games and knows how to win them. He came up with play that changed the game. That’s why he won the Golden Boot, he’s a great player.”
Sinfield said: “I’ve had a few go’s this year and not been quite good enough but I saw a bit of space and I thought it was worth having a go. Thankfully it bounced this side of the line.”
Leeds coach Brian McDermott admitted that Sinfield’s contribution, on his final appearance as a rugby league player at Headingley before he switches codes, was crucial.
“It came down to a battle of wills, we needed something special,” McDermott said. “It was a great involvement from him.
“We were gassed in the second half. Saints are such a tough team, they wouldn’t go away.”
The result means Sinfield will get the chance to play his final match for Leeds on the big stage alongside team-mates Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, who are both retiring.
“I’m experiencing a whole range of emotions,” Sinfield added. “I’m very tired, it was one of the toughest games I’ve been involved with.
“I’m also very happy. To get the win here in front of so many great fans is a nice way to say goodbye to my Rhinos career at Headingley.
“But tonight is not about me or JP or Kylie, there’s a full dressing room of lads who wanted to win. We have a fantastic group who want to win no matter what.”
Saints led 8-0 after 16 minutes thanks to a superb solo try from hooker James Roby and two goals from Luke Walsh, who also added a drop-goal on the stroke of half-time.
When Mark Percival, switched to the wing in place of the injured Tom Makinson, went over for a second try on the hour, Saints looked set for a quick return to Old Trafford.
But Walsh was wide with the conversion attempt to leave the Rhinos in touching distance and they were good enough to take their chance and stay on course to complete the treble last achieved by St Helens in 2006.
Cunningham, who was hoping to take Saints back to a Grand Final in his first year as head coach, said: “All year I’ve been proud of what my players have done. Through all the adversity, they’ve kept fighting.
“I’ve no complaints. I’ve learnt a lot this year. We’ve been the bridesmaid a couple of times, hopefully next year we can become the bride.
“But all credit to Leeds. I’m pleased Brian Mac has got there and I’m pleased for JP, Kylie and Sinfield. Everybody had written Leeds off a few weeks back apart from us.
“Leeds are a team capable of doing anything. They remind me of the great side we had in 2006. The way it’s set up, it’s difficult to even reach a Grand Final after playing at Wembley and they’ve done the unthinkable.”