In a tight match of very few breaks, Lee Smith‘s brace of tries was enough to see the Rhinos home with captain Kevin Sinfield winning the Harry Sutherland Trophy for man of the match after a true captain’s knock.
The opening quarter saw the forwards do battle, and both sides exchanged numerous penalties, but the game remained scoreless with very few chances.
But a moment of opportunism from Kyle Eastmond got the ball rolling and put Saints in front. Going down the blind side on the last tackle, Jon Wilkin‘s kick deflected up off a Leeds defender and Eastmond pounced for the ball in competition with Scott Donald and came off best, before running thirty yards and round under the posts. The youngster converted to give Saints, the underdogs, a 6-0 lead.
The score unsettled Leeds, and Saints had a spell where they looked like threatening the scorers once again. However, the Rhinos defence held strong and they even threatened to score themselves when Jamie Jones-Buchanan was held up over the line by Paul Wellens.
Eastmond extended his side’s advantage with a penalty but the Rhinos got themselves back in to the game soon after. Another spell of pressure on the Saints line finally paid off, when hooker Matt Diskin bundled his way over from dummy half. After consulting the video referee, the try was awarded and following Sinfield’s uncharacteristic conversion miss, Leeds were back within a score at 8-4.
Leeds undoubtedly finished the half stronger and they levelled things up thanks to a defensive error. Danny McGuire‘s grubber kick down the right hand side forced Francis Meli to turn around, and despite the presence of his full back Wellens, Meli decided to flick the ball up, looking for the dead ball line. It didn’t make it, and instead rugby union bound winger Smith pounced for his first try. Sinfield missed his second kick and the side’s went in to the break tied at 8-8.
From the restart, Ade Gardner misjudged the bounce of the ball, allowing it to go in to touch, setting the platform for Leeds to take the lead for the first time – Sinfield slotting over a drop goal to make it 9-8.
The game reverted to its midfield battle with Leeds gaining the upper hand courtesy of the superb kicking of Sinfield, McGuire and Rob Burrow. Saints in contrast, with Sean Long playing his farewell game for the club, struggled to push the Rhinos defence back on occasions and it was this that gave their opponents the territorial advantage, especially in the second half.
It was Saints that first tried their arm out wide, as Wilkin fed Matt Gidley down the right. His superb one handed pass set Gardner free on the wing and he raced towards the try line. However, he was dragged in to touch just metres from the try line by opposite number Ryan Hall. But after it was passed to the video referee, Saints were awarded a penalty after it showed Brent Webb had gone in on Gardner with his knees following the tackle.
It gave Saints a platform and moments later, Eastmond was given the chance to put his side back ahead following a high tackle by Burrow on Long. Eastmond duly converted and Saints, the pre-match underdogs according to the bookmakers, led 10-9.
St Helens started to assert some sort of authority, but they could not find the telling score. And another error by Gardner set Leeds up with crucial field position, and as they came heartbreakingly close to the Saints line, they won a penalty – Keiron Cunningham guilty of interference at the play the ball. Sinfield slotted over the simplest of kicks to put his side back in front, 11-10.
It was do or die for Saints as the game entered the final fifteen minutes and they finally started to the move the ball along the line, if indeed they did lack conviction. Saints had not scored more than 14 points in a match since their win over Harlequins in July, and their hesitancy in attack was evident even as they chased the game winning score.
But quick hands by Wellens and Flannery created an overlap on the left wing and Eastmond danced down the touchline and reached for the line. A superb tackle by Sinfield seemed to have knocked him in to touch, and the video referee was once again employed. After much deliberation on Eastmond’s feet, the replay clearly showed he was bundled in to the flag before getting the ball down and Saints were denied.
And with eight minutes left, the game was won in controversial circumstances. As Saints defended their line superbly, McGuire resorted to a compromise play on the last tackle, and his clever kick bounced up for Smith who raced in behind the sticks to set up a simple conversion and a seven point lead. The try was again referred to the video referee, and there was an agonising wait for everyone in Old Trafford as Phil Bentham deliberated on the biggest of big calls.
The replays were virtually inconclusive, as opinion was divided throughout the ground. Smith looked level with McGuire as he kicked the ball from one angle, but you could argue he was ahead of the play on another. But the benefit of the doubt must always go to the attacking team and this is perhaps how Bentham judged that the try was to be awarded, and Sinfield was allowed to knock over a simple conversion and put his side seven points clear.
With both teams clearly tiring after what had been a long slog up the middle for both sets of forwards, Saints looked short of what they needed to claw their way back in to the game, epitomised by some poor kick chases in the closing stages.
Burrow extended Leeds’ advantage further with two minutes on the clock when he added a second one-pointer. From the subsequent kick-off, Long found touch with a clever kick, but a knock on by Tony Puletua ended any slim hopes of a dramatic Saints comeback.