A controversial try from London Wasps’ bound Lee Smith finally decided a taut 2009 engage Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford, Manchester.
The score confirmed Leeds Rhinos as the best team in Britain and left Saints stunned at a third Grand Final loss in as many seasons. But Saints will be left to rue the costly errors that gifted Leeds field position, possession and ultimately points.
This win tonight is dedicated to John Holmes (Leeds and GB standoff who passed away last week)
Saints dominated the early possession and territory with Kyle Eastmond crossing for the only try and tagging on the conversion and later a penalty. But it was the Rhinos who held the momentum at the break as they roared back to level the scores through tries by Matt Diskin and Lee Smith.
The game got off to the prescribed ‘tasty’ start with Ade Gardner feeling the force of Carl Ablett’s high tackle as he returned a kick from his own in-goal. A back-to-back penalty gave Saints the first chance to exert pressure but in the end all they could deliver was a good bomb from Long that was fielded well on his own goal line by Brent Webb under heavy pressure from Chris Flannery. Game on.
Long’s early kicking-game clearly showed Saints were prepared to test the fitness of Webb, who McClennan had revealed to be carrying an unspecified injury. But the experienced fullback proved up to the task,even linking up in attack to give Ryan Hall a half chance that Gardner quickly snuffed out.
The first real error of the game came on eight minutes when Jon Wilkin put the ball straight into touch to give Leeds the turnover on the Saints 40. In the end Lee Smith’s fumble at the right corner returned the favour.
Cunningham and Long almost crafted a gap in midfield only for age to deny them, but Pryce’s bomb caused Leeds problems and Gardner did well to earn a line-drop-out with his grubber to the corner.
Long’s dab in goal ended the set, with Cunningham a hairs-breadth from touching down the opening try.
And Saints finally capitalised on their domination of possession when Eastmond scooted through to regather Wilkin’s kick and round Webb to touchdown by the posts. It was the youngsters first touch of the ball and highlighted the reason why he has forced his way into the Saints line-up.
Kevin Sinfield’s monster 40/20 kick fired-up the Rhinos in the second quarter but the scousers’ defence was equal to the task and Long’s presence was just enough to deny Danny McGuire as he chased down Sinfield’s chip to the posts; Saints picking up the penalty in the process.
They soon had another one too; this time a kickable one as the Rhinos were caught offside from Pryce’s bomb. Eastmond converted for an 8-point lead.
The introduction of Lauititi, Kirke and Burgess from the bench on 28 minutes signalled Leeds’ push for glory. It was rewarded almost immediately with Matt Diskin forcing his way through a ruck of defenders to score at right centre. Sinfield’s conversion attempt rattled the right upright and bounced clear.
The Saints countered with James Roby’s challenging runs from dummy half, which briefly threatened to open up the miserly Rhinos’ defence.
But it was the Rhinos who scored next; Meli coming up with a glaring error as he attempted to clear a dab in goal, his weak attempt to force the ball dead failed and Lee Smith was there to touchdown. Sinfield again missed the conversion.
Gardner misjudged the kickoff, allowing the ball to roll into touch, it gave the Rhinos an early chance to attack the Saints line and Sinfield popped-over a drop goal to nudged them into the lead.
Gardner went close to atoning for the error racing to the right corner only to be forced into touch by the desperate knee lunge of Webb, which gave Saints a penalty on the Leeds line.
Fa’asavalu, Pryce and Clough all had at the Leeds defensive line but a poor pass from Roby snuffed out the chance and forced and error from Fa’asavalu.
With the Rhinos upping the tempo in defense the Saints quickly found themselves struggling to clear their own lines and Long’s deep kick only relieved the pressure momentarily. Peacock led the Rhinos charge back downfield and Sinfield’s bomb had Wellens fielding the ball under his own posts.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s alleged knock-on in midfield gave Saints a platform to attack and Long dummied to dart through only to be halted on the 20. Puletua took it deeper, but Long’s crossfield kick was easily defused by Hall and a penalty quickly wasted Saints’ hard work.
The Rhinos kick and chase continued to harry Meli into panic mode and with their defence in blitz-mode they looked primed to put the game to bed.
Instead Saints rallied. Meli being denied by a three man tackle at the corner and Smith hustling back to defuse a dangerous Long grubber.
A high tackle by Kyle Leuluai on Long gave Eastmond the chance to put Saints back in front, he took the pressure kick and made it 10-9 on the hour.
The Rhinos were soon back at the door though. An error from Gidley at a play the ball deep in Saints 20 giving Leeds a golden opportunity. When Cunningham was penalised for interference beneath the Saints posts, Sinfield tagged on the 2-points for an 11-10 lead.
Eastmond then went close to gaining a second try on 68-minutes. Gilmour and Roby combining with Meli’s inside run and offload opening a gap in the left side of the Rhinos defense, but the video referee ruled Eastmond had been forced into the corner flag by Webb’s tackle as he dove in at the corner.
It was to be Saints’ final chance. When Meli coughed the ball up inside his own 10 moments later the Rhinos piled-forward with venom, gaining a back-to-back set when Sinfield’s kick was blocked. Desperate defence then held Kirke up over the line before Smith pounced on McGuire’s kick through to kill off the Merseyside challenge for a third consecutive season.
Or did he? Phil Bentham scoured the video tape and despite conclusive evidence that Smith was a half yard offside, he allowed the try to stand. So yes he did.
Rob Burrow confirmed his appearance by tagging on a late drop goal to make it 18-10.
Leeds Rhinos coach, Brian McClennan, made just one change to the team that defeated Catalans Dragons in a thrilling semi, adding the bulk and experience of Ali Lautiti to his bench as the Yorkshire outfit muscled up to take on the Mersey challengers.
The Saints retained the line-up that defeated neighbouring Wigan in their semi-final, Coach Mick Potter, attributing Keiron Cunningham’s decision to play with a pain-killing injection to deaden the pain from his broken hand down to the character of the player. That much may be true but the success or otherwise of the gamble will also reflect on the coach, with a lot riding on the performance of the iconic hooker.
Leeds Rhinos: 1 Webb, 2 Donald, 3 Smith, 4 Senior, 5 Hall, 6 McGuire, 7 Burrow, 8 Leuluai, 14 Diskin, 10 Peacock, 11 Jones-Buchanan, 18 Ablet, 13 Sinfield
Subs: 12 Lautiti,16 Bailey, 17 Kirke, 19 Burgess
T: Diskin (29), Smith (37), Smith (73)
G: Sinfield 2/4
DG: Sinfield (42), Burrow (78)
St Helens: 1 Wellens, 2 Gardner, 3 Gidley, 18 Eastmond, 5 Meli, 6 Pryce, 7 Long, 10 Graham, 9 Cunningham, 16 Puletua,13 Flannery, 12 Wilkin, 11 Gilmour
Subs: 14 Roby, 17 Clough, 15 Hargreaves, 23 Fa’asavalu
T: Eastmond (14)
G: Eastmond 3/3
14 Eastmond try, Eastmond goal (1/1) 0-6
26 Eastmond goal (2/2) 0-8
29 Diskin try, Sinfield miss (0/1) 4-8
37 Smith try, Sinfield miss (0/2) 8-8
42 Sinfield DG 9-8
60 Eastmond goal (3/3) 9-10
65 Sinfield goal (1/3) 11-10
73 Smith try, Sinfield (2/4) 17-10
78 Burrow DG 18-10
Referee: Steve Ganson
Att: 63, 259