St Helens 41 Leeds Rhinos 20: Leeds left running on empty as Saints sparkle

JAMES GRAHAM does not know the meaning of the phrase lost cause.

Two acts of defiance in the closing stages of Saturday's Grand Final re-match demonstrated just why and how supreme St Helens emerged victorious over champions Leeds.

At the end of a bruising encounter, the robust prop had no right to scramble across and deny England winger Ryan Hall in the corner.

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Soon after his fine cover effort, he then found the strength to chase down Rob Burrow in the unlikeliest of races as the Leeds scrum-half picked up a dropped St Helens ball on his own line and steamed 100 metres to score at the other end.

The charging Graham never hauled him in but he forced Burrow to arrow to the corner. No Leeds forward would even have got near because, although they were never devoid of ideas, they were always lacking one thing – energy.

The game was over at half-time. The Yorkshire club may only have trailed 20-6 and, indeed, when Hall crossed on the hour mark had a sniff at 27-16.

But, after a punishing opening 40 minutes which must have left them feeling they had endured a quickfire London Marathon, Brian McClennan's exhausted side did not have the reserves to call upon when they were required to step up another gear.

At one point in that first half, they conceded six consecutive penalties, something which no team can afford to do against a side as powerful and skilful as Saints, who heaped more pressure on the breathless visitors by forcing four goal-line drop outs.

"We got to within 11 points at one stage but we had to do too much defending in the first half and it caught up with us," admitted McClennan, whose side's hopes of going five games unbeaten were ruthlessly ended.

Saints may have been without stars like Matt Gidley, Jon Wilkin, Francis Meli and Leon Pryce – who broke a toe as a result of an amusing "domestic" accident according to coach Mick Potter – but with hookers Keiron Cunningham and James Roby in typical deadly form and England scrum-half Kyle Eastmond showing all the class which has seen him emerge as a one of the world's brightest young talents, they were still capable and more than eager to exact revenge for Old Trafford.

Ironically, Leeds got off to the best possible start. Eastmond launched the kick-off dead handing the visitors a penalty and, after just 56 seconds, Lee Smith dived over following an excellent off-load from Ian Kirke.

It had been Smith who scored the controversial decider when Leeds defeated Saints for a third year running at Old Trafford last October and he was soon denying them at the other end when – playing full-back after a late training injury to Brent Webb – he held up Cunningham over the line after one of the veteran hooker's trademark burrows.

Video referee Steve Ganson then correctly ruled out Chris Flannery's effort as Saints applied more pressure but Leeds – who remain outside of the play-off spots – were left bemused when the St Helens official chalked off Hall's 13th minute attempt for an apparent obstruction by Jamie Jones-Buchanan which seemed harsh.

It proved crucial as, instead of potentially being 12-0 up, soon after they were 6-6 after Cunningham found Scott Moore close to the line.

He then picked out the looming presence of Tony Puletua who barged through Jamie Jones-Buchanan for their second and, when Luke Burgess stole possession from the gargantuan Kiwi, 19-year-old Super League debutant Jamie Foster slotted the penalty.

Things got worse as Burgess caught team-mate Matt Diskin with a flying elbow in a tackle which left the Leeds hooker grounded with a bloodied nose before Roby exposed some poor line defence by sneaking over from dummy half.

Saints struck first in the second half when Kylie Leuluai was harshly penalised for a late tackle on Paul Clough, Burrow making a bad read in defence to allow Flannery to cross off Eastmond's pass.

Ex-Saints hero Sean Long – commentating for radio in the stands – had a sly grin as Eastmond, who inherited his throne at Knowsley Road, then punched over a drop goal.

Leeds, who also saw Carl Ablett crocked in training, responded with a well-worked try for Brett Delaney off McGuire's exquisite pass and Hall quickly added another when Sinfield, McGuire and Delaney combined. But hopes of a comeback were soon extinguished when Diskin made the first of a raft of mistakes from the re-start, tiring Leeds's handling letting them down.

Foster added a penalty, Matty Ashurst eased over for another try which the immaculate youngster improved again – Foster scored eight from eight on debut against Toulouse last week and did likewise on Saturday night – before Burrow and Graham had their race-off at the end.

The Leeds player won that sprint but it might be Saints – now just two points behind leaders Wigan – who go the full distance.

St Helens: Wellens; Gardner, Wheeler, Flannery, Foster; Moore, Eastmond; Graham, Cunningham, Hargreaves, Clough, Dixon, Puletua. Substitutes: Fozzard, Roby, Ashurst, Fa'asavalu.

Leeds: Smith; Hall, Delaney, Senior, Bush; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Diskin, Bailey, Jones-Buchanan, Kirke, Sinfield. Substitutes: Buderus, Peacock, Burgess, Ambler.

Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).

MATCH FOCUS

Hero: Keiron Cunningham

The 33-year-old ex-Great Britain hooker shows no sign of aging. Still has the ability to control a game, always picking out the right option from dummy half, creating two tries and making life miserable for Leeds defenders.

Villain: Luke Burgess

Made the wrong sort of impact when he arrived midway through the first half, quickly conceding a costly penalty that Jamie Foster slotted and catching team-mate Matt Diskin with an elbow.

Key moment

13th minute: Video referee Steve Ganson ruled out what looked a legitimate Ryan Hall try because Jamie Jones-Buchanan apparently blocked Chris Flannery but the Saints defender never had any chance of making the needed tackle. Leeds could have been 12-0 up with momentum but that all soon went Saints' way.

Verdict

Leeds have transformed their season during the month of April, winning three and drawing another, but ran out of steam against a St Helens side who seemed hungrier for the win.

Next game

Leeds Rhinos v Wakefield, Saturday May 1, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, 7pm.

Quote of the day

I thought our first 40 minutes was one of our best performances of the year.

– Mick Potter is not wrong after St Helens bounced back from an early setback to power through the reigning champions