The BBC must have been ‘chomping at the bit’ to announce their first-choice game for terrestrial television broadcast as soon as St Helens v. Leeds Rhinos was pulled out of the draw machine as the defending Cup winners were pitted against the Super League Champions. What they didn’t account for was the injury devastation which would hit the Rhinos in the early weeks of the season and make Saints massive favourites to pick up the win and make progress through to the fourth round with very little difficulty.
The Rhinos travelled to the Totally Wicked Stadium with very little expectation of getting a result, while complacency could have been Saints main concern prior to the 14:30 kick off with the game being broadcast live to the nation on the BBC. There were debuts for King Vuniyayawa and Morgan Gannon for the Rhinos against an almost full-strength Saints side.
Within two and a half minutes Saints engineered an overlap wide on the right and Tommy Makinson stepped inside to wrongfoot Jack Broadbent to go over on his back and ground the ball. Makinson converted himself, from the touchline, for a 6-0 lead.
Ten minutes had passed before the Rhinos managed to grab a try back, Mikolaj Oledzki going route one from first receiver to crash through three Saints tacklers and drop on the line, Rhyse Martin added the conversion to level the scores.
Three consecutive Saints sets inside the Rhinos twenty should have resulted in a second try but the Rhinos defence managed to hold James Roby up over the line on the last tackle to regain possession. The Rhinos were defending well but Saints were still in the low gears but they had lost both Lees and Mata’utia to injury inside the first twenty, neither able to return for the rest of the game in what was turning into a battle of the forwards.
The Saints mistakes were coming thick and fast as the Rhinos refused to follow the script, but it was a Rhinos high tackle which gave Saints the chance to kick a penalty and Makinson took advantage smacking his two pointer between the uprights.
Leeds debutant King Vuniyayawa lasted just a few minutes as he fell victim to a massive hit from the ball carrying Agnatius Paasi, it was turning into a war of attrition, it would be a matter of who could keep their players available.
The Rhinos defended their line under big Saints pressure in the dying seconds to deny any further score and it was the visitors who went into the interval very happy with their first forty of work, Saints on the other hand were frustrated at their lack of progress on the scoreboard.
The first major incident of the second half was a late hit on Theo Fages by Zane Tetevano on forty-four which saw the loose forward red-carded and down to twelve for the remainder of the game, the hill that the Rhinos had to climb had become a mountain. Makinson took the opportunity to kick the penalty goal and double the lead to four points.
On forty-seven Saints used the advantage with an expansive move with Jack Welsby supplying the final pass to Regan Grace for a simple try for the winger. Makinson failed to add the conversion but Saints had one foot securely in the fourth round.
Makinson put his foot in touch when clear down the right wing let the Rhinos off the hook on fifty-four.
Fast hands from Saints on sixty-two gave Grace his second of the afternoon, again tight by the left corner flag as Tom Briscoe had the thankless task of trying to cover two attackers. Makinson converted from the 22-6.
There was some consolation for the Rhinos on sixty-four with a Brad Dwyer lunge for the line from acting half back, the hooker grounding one handed under the sticks. Martin added the conversion to again reduce the arrears to eight points.
With ten minutes remaining Dwyer went in for his second in six minutes as he crashed over by the left upright to wrestle the ball onto the ground. When Martin added the conversion, the Saints lead was down to just two points with the Rhinos having the time available to snatch the win, and the momentum.
With ninety seconds left on the clock Makinson sealed the Saints win as he found space to score down the right wing. He added the conversion with second left on the clock for a 26-18 win against a gritty Rhinos side which fought back brilliantly when down to twelve me for over half an hour of the game.
Saints will be relieved rather than euphoric at the win, Leeds will take some pride from the defeat but will be left wondering what could have been, had Tetevano not had his minute of madness.
St. Helens: Coote, Makinson (2T, 5G), Naiqama, Welsby, Grace (2T), Fages, Lomax, Walmsley, Roby (T), Lees, Thompson, Bentley, Mata’utia. Subs: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Amor, Paasi, Dodd.
Leeds Rhinos: Broadbent, Briscoe L, Mellor, Sutcliffe A, Briscoe T, Smith, Martin (3G), Oledzki (T), Leeming, Prior, Walters, Donaldson, Tetevano (SO on 44). Subs: Dwyer (2T), O’Connor, Vuniyayawa, Gannon.
Referee: Ben Thaler.
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 6-4, 6-6, 8-6 : HT : 10-6, 14-6, 18-6, 20-6, 20-10, 20-12, 20-16, 20-18, 24-18, 26-18 : FT.