LEEDS RHINOS lost their unbeaten record and the chance to go top of Super League last night after a remarkable effort from depleted leaders St Helens.
These sides have served up some classics in their time – more often than not doing battle in Grand Finals – and this, too, can rank among them.
However, whereas Leeds inevitably won at Old Trafford, they could not garner the victory here as Tom Makinson produced a wonder try in the 78th minute to settle a fascinating contest.
Many thought this much-anticipated fixture would be heavily watered down when it emerged Saints would be missing seven regulars through injury or suspension but it did not show in the slightest as their young and fearless side produced a heroic display to maintain their 100 per cent start.
Admittedly, the gargantuan Mose Masoe is the size of three forwards alone – the Samoan made Leeds prop Kylie Leuluai look almost dainty in comparison – and even their teenage prop Andre Savelio off the bench was a formidable presence.
Nonetheless, Leeds were still expected to power through them. But it just didn’t happen.
Brian McDermott’s side had their chances with Kevin Sinfield – whose peerless short kicking game had the hosts on the back foot for so long – pulling a drop goal attempt just wide when the scores were locked at 10-10 with six minutes to go.
Saints – with Sia Soliola and Jonny Lomax magnificent – looked to have wasted their own glaring opportunity soon after, too, when the foolhardy prop Anthony Laffranchi tried unsuccessfully bundling over from dummy half when his own kickers were waiting for a shot.
But the Australian’s embarrassment was assuaged in a thrilling finale.
Lance Hohaia flighted a deft chip over the Leeds defence on halfway, Lomax just beat Danny McGuire to the bouncing ball and then saw acres of space down the right flank.
The full-back instantly directed a perfect kick there where Makinson – whose quality finish had put Saints 10-8 up in the 65th minute – held his nerve to collect and score.
Leeds, without hooker Paul Aiton and Mitch Achurch a late withdrawal, had showed some early signs of unease and never truly settled.
However, Rob Burrow, who was at his effervescent best darting around the ruck last night, sent Carl Ablett surging away from their own end in the first half just as some hostile Saints defence seemed to have Leeds penned in and, though McGuire was eventually hauled down, they pressed and pressed.
Sinfield twice forced drop-outs with clever kicks and it was the Leeds captain who eventually proved the genesis of their first try in the 18th minute.
It was his perfect pass that launched Ablett through the tiring Saints defence in front of the posts and, inevitably almost, McGuire arrived in support to finish. It was the England scrum-half’s 250th career try and a classic Leeds score.
Sinfield converted to rack up his 3,500th point in blue and amber but there was no grip tightening from the West Yorkshire side.
Instead, a soft fumble from Kallum Watkins while playing the ball offered Saints opportunity to strike and, after Ian Kirke was penalised too, Roby’s brilliant flat pass in front of the posts caught Leeds flat-footed as loose forward Anthony Walker fell over the line.
Makinson levelled as he converted. With each side refusing to budge, it was no surprise when Sinfield accepted a gift two points in front of the posts in the 55th minute.
Leeds should have increased their lead but Stevie Ward was enveloped by Makinson to deny a pass to the waiting Hall and then McGuire spilled stretching for the line on the last tackle.
Saints warned Leeds of their own potential when Josh Jones had an effort harshly ruled out and so the visitors had no excuses when Makinson struck after a great run from the veteran Paul Wellens on his record-equalling 413th Super League appearance.
Sinfield levelled with a penalty but all the drama was still to come as Saints gained some revenge for last season’s 11-10 play-off exit.
Leeds recalled second-row Chris Clarkson – scheduled to play on dual registration for Hunslet Hawks tomorrow – for Achurch while winger Ben Jones-Bishop remained unused on the bench.
St Helens: Lomax; Makinson, Jones, Dawson, Swift; Hohaia, Wellens; Masoe, Roby, Richards, Flanagan, Soliola, Walker. Substitutes: Laffranchi, Greenwood, Thompson, Savelio.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Ward, Hall; McGuire, Sinfield; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Delaney. Substitutes: Jones-Bishop, Kirke, Clarkson, Singleton.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).