Six tries and a passion born of frustration over their stuttering title defence were not enough to see Leeds Rhinos get the better of Saint Helens last night. As with Wigan and Huddersfield this was a game where the emotions of the players were visible in the determination they showed on the pitch, and the scoreline swung back and forth in favour of one team or the other as a result. Yet this was always St Helens’s game to lose, even when the Rhinos went, briefly, ahead towards the end of the first half, as whatever malaise it is that has affected the Rhinos this year continued to hold sway over the team.
Saints took an early lead, going ten points up in the first quarter of the game, only for Leeds to mount a resurgence that took them six points clear. St Helens equalised just before half time and when the teams came back out for the last forty minutes of the game, whatever magic it was that had inspired Leeds to fight back was gone. While the Rhinos could still show they had the fire to chase the game, and the skill to win it, they also showed all the problems that have produced such a disappointing season so far.
Saints were always in control of the second half, and while Leeds were able to claw their way back from the ten point deficits Saints created, they never equalised. Instead, like a wasp stinging a bull, every time Leeds threatened, Saints responded in fine form, with Kyle Amor bulldozing his way through the Rhinos’s defensive line for a memorable try. At least with Amor, who is visibly tall and strong, Leeds had an excuse, but time and again, Saints players were able to advance even when two or three Rhinos players were trying to bring them down.
Ultimately the Rhinos defence was raggedy at best, as Theo Fages showed when he scored two tries in the last twenty minutes, the second started with a superb dummy that completely wrong-footed Leeds. The Frenchman was narrowly denied what would have been a well deserved hatrick when Luke Walsh’s missed attempt at a drop goal bounced off the post and slipped through his fingers. Either way, he has marked himself out as another fine Gallic export to watch this season, alongside the likes of Warrington’s Benjamin Julien.
So another defeat for Leeds, who will be lucky to reach the playoffs this year, but Saints too must know they are not probable contenders for a Grand Final place this year either. While they beat the Rhinos, their own defence was scrappy at times too, and against a better side they would not have managed the victory. For all that they beat Warrington, losses to Salford, Catalans, and perennial rivals Wigan this year have marked out how much improvement is needed in Keiron Cunningham’s side this year. With other members of the old guard in place on the coaching side, and the likes of Fages coming up through the ranks, Saints fans should be expectant. They may however have another year to wait before this side can mature enough to deliver the quality and calibre of play required to have a chance at gaining the Superleague title.