Leeds 12-26 St Helens

St Helens inflicted Brian McLennan’s first back-to-back defeat as Leeds coach on Friday night, with a gritty 26-12 win at Headingley.nnFrancis Meli grabbed two tries for the Challenge Cup holders, as Leeds finished the match with 12 men following Nick Scruton‘s sending off.nnThe result really turns the heat up on league leaders Leeds. The reigning Super League champions held a six-point advantage at the top just two weeks ago, but now hold a slender two-point lead at the top with nine rounds of the regular season still to play.nnThe game got underway after a perfectly-observed minute’s silence in memory of former Great Britain, Wakefield and Hull FC half-back David Topliss, who died suddenly in midweek. The game began as tightly as expected, with neither team giving an inch in a highly defensive opening.nn11 minutes in, Leeds had a golden opportunity to take an early two-point lead. Hooker Keiron Cunningham was penalised for offside right under the sticks, but Leeds opted to take the quick tap instead of the simple kick, and were left to rue the decision after coughing up possession on the second tackle of the set.nnProp Ryan Bailey was placed on report by referee Steve Ganson on 16 minutes, after a dangerous ‘chicken wing’ tackle on Maurie Fa’asavalu.nnLeeds nearly went ahead on the half’s halfway mark, after stand-off Danny McGuire found a rare gap in the visitors’ defence. Untypical of Leeds, though, he ran into St Helens defence without any lateral support, and was forced to offload to loose forward Gareth Ellis, who was wrapped up by recovering tacklers.nnTwo minutes later, prop Maurie Fa’asavalu silenced the home crowd with the opening score under the sticks. Leon Pryce found a chink in Leeds’ armour, and he switched the ball back to Fa’asavalu, who sauntered through the space to emphatically touch down under the sticks. Sean Long added the two from right under the posts to give the visitors a 6-0 lead.nnTheir lead lasted no more than five minutes. With ten minutes of the half to play, Leeds skipper Kevin Sinfield took advantage of incessant pressure. St Helens looked to have survived the pressure, but had to defend another set after being caught offside. On the end of the next set of six, a clever McGuire grubber kick was pounced on by Sinfield, who converted his own try to tie it up at 6-6.nnSt Helens walked into the sheds in front, though. A superb Long grubber kick ricocheted off the padding on the sticks, and it was Bryn Hargreaves – hat-trick hero in last weekend’s 58-20 defeat of Bradford – who gratefully dropped on the bouncing ball. Following his wonderful kick to set up the try, Long somehow missed the conversion from close range, leaving the visitors with a 10-6 interval lead.nnJust four minutes after the break, kiwi wingman Francis Meli stretched the visitors’ lead with a try in the corner. A Leeds knock-on put them on the back foot, and after patient build-up play from the St Helens backs, quick passing along the line saw Meli take full advantage in the corner. Long again failed with the conversion attempt, so the scoreline stayed at 6-14.nnThings went from bad to worse for the home side midway through the second half, as they were reduced to 12 men. Cunningham fell victim to a dangerous spear tackle by Nick Scruton, who was immediately dismissed by Steve Ganson. Cunningham was lucky not to pick up a serious neck injury after being dumped on his head, and Ganson showed no hesitation in showing Scruton red.nnWithin minutes, St Helens had fully exploited their man advantage. The Talau-Meli combination again worked wonders on the left flank, and almost identically to the first try of the half, Meli dived over in the corner to spark a melee in the visiting crowd behind the goal.nnWith 15 minutes on the clock, Leeds’ top try-scorer Scott Donald found hope with a try in the corner. Quick hands along the line resulted in wingman Donald – making his 87th consecutive start for the club – scoring in the corner, before Sinfield landed a superb touchline conversion to bring Leeds within a converted try of a draw.nnWith ten minutes of the game remaining, Leon Pryce effectively sealed the game. A high Long kick hung in the air, and Pryce was on hand to pluck the ball from the air and from Brent Webb‘s grasp to touch down next to the sticks. Long finally kicked his second conversion of the game from underneath the sticks to restore his side’s 12-point cushion.nnLong put any hopes of a stunning Leeds comeback well and truly to bed with a late penalty, after prop James Graham was caught with a high tackle.nnThe victory is St Helens‘ 11th on the trot in all competitions, as their unstoppable mid-season form and assault on top spot continues. They now look full of belief, and would be full value for a top-placed finish come play-off time, while Leeds are showing their first signs of self-doubt all season.nnnLeeds – 12nnT: Sinfield (29); Donald (64)nG: Sinfield (29, 65)nnSt Helens – 26nnT: Fa’asavalu (24); Hargreaves (34); Meli (44, 55); Pryce (69)nG: Long (24, 70, 77)nnHT: 6-10nnRef: S GansonnnAtt: 18,303

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