Kevin Naiqama bagged a hat-trick to help St Helens comfortably beat Leeds 36-20 at Emerald Headingley.
Justin Holbrook has made four changes to his St Helens side that won at Warrington last week. Theo Fages, Mark Percival, Josh Eaves and Joe Batchelor came in.
Tommy Makinson, Danny Richardson, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Joseph Paulo dropped out for Saints.
Leeds interim coach Richard Agar made one change to his outfit that battered Catalans last time out. Nathaniel Peteru replaced the banned Brad Singleton.
The Rhinos were dealt a blow in the opening quarter as prop Ava Seumanufagai left the field with concussion and failed to return.
Saints winger Regan Grace scored the first try of the game before Richie Myler levelled the score.
Ash Handley fired Leeds into the lead on the half hour mark but Kevin Naiqama went over for the visitors to tie the score at 10-10 at the break.
Saints back-rower Zeb Taia went over for two quickfire tries shortly after the second half restart, while Naiqama scored two to complete his hat-trick on the hour mark.
Leeds had spirit and hit back with two tries through Handley and Harry Newman in the last 10 minutes but it wasn’t enough as league leaders St Helens finished 36-20 victors at Emerald Headingley.
Three talking points
Naiqama gets one over Hurrell
It was a fantastic battle of the centres between St Helens’ Naiqama and Leeds’ Konrad Hurrell.
Tonga powerhouse Hurrell got the better of Naiqama for Handley’s try in the first half and was unstoppable for the hosts in the first 40.
But Naiqama showed his class in the second half. The Fiji captain used his explosive feet to go over for a couple of tries. Naiqama won the battle in the end.
St Helens youngsters step up again
Holbrook has given plenty of changes to young players this year because he has rotated his squad a lot more than he did in 2017 and 2018.
And a trip to Leeds was going to be one of the toughest tasks they’ve faced to date. Jack Welsby started the game in a shaky manner – but he flourished after getting his head around a couple of knock-ons.
Hooker Josh Eaves made his second Super League appearance, while Aaron Smith looks capable of filling James Roby’s boots when the veteran decides to retire. Centre Matty Costello has a big future, too.
Positive signs for Leeds
The Rhinos might have lost the game but they continue to impress under interim boss Agar. They are playing like more of a team now than when Dave Furner was in charge.
Agar gives the impression that he would like the Leeds job on a permanent basis and the club seem keen to give him the role, which he deserves.
Leeds can be proud of their first half performance against table toppers St Helens. They were unfortunate not to be ahead at the break but they just capitulated in the second half. They are a much, much better team than what they were in the first half of the season.
Line-ups and player ratings
Leeds: Walker (6); L Briscoe (5), Newman (6), Hurrell (8), Handley (7); Lui (6), Myler (7); Seumanufagai (4), Lunt (6), Cuthbertson (7), Ferres (7), Martin (7), Merrin (7). Subs: Dwyer (6), Donaldson (6), Peteru (7), L Sutcliffe (5).
Tries: Myler, Handley 2, Newman Goals: Martin 2/4
St Helens: Welsby (7); Costello (7), Naiqama (8), Percival (7), Grace (8); Fages (7), Lomax (8); Thompson (7), Smith (7), Lees (6), Taia (8), Peyroux (7), Bentley (6). Subs: Amor (6), Ashworth (6), Eaves (7), Batchelor (6).
Tries: Grace, Naiqama 3, Taia 2 Goals: Percival 6/7
The old cliche goes something like: “It’s a sign of a champion side when you win when you aren’t playing well.” That cliche related to Saints.
St Helens were only playing at around 70% against Leeds and they probably had an eye on the Challenge Cup final at Wembley next week – but they are still magnificent to watch.
Rhinos supporters can be encouraged by their side’s first half showing. The 40-minute display was up there with the best they’ve played in 2019, and if they can put the pieces of the jigsaw together then they’ll be close to getting back to the Leeds we know.