Not even the dreaded Wembleyitis, it seems, can stop this all-conquering St Helens side in their pursuit of greatness. The interim period between the Challenge Cup semi-finals and the Wembley showpiece is often a breeding ground for a drop-off in form but this wonderful team are simply too good to be bothered by any of that kind of nonsense right now.
The league table can frequently be misleading but, when it comes to Justin Holbrook’s team of all talents, it tells you everything. The size of the task awaiting Warrington next week at Wembley when they face the Saints is underlined by the fact that everyone – even the second-placed Wolves – are now closer to the bottom of the table than they are to the runaway Super League leaders.
Their remarkable 16-point lead is now almost certainly set to be the greatest in Super League history too – with Castleford’s 10-point margin at the top two years ago the benchmark.
This was far from a serene warm-up for St Helens. The Saints, facing a Leeds side who have scored 92 points in back-to-back victories to ease their relegation fears, came across the Pennines without seven first-teamers who should all return for Wembley.
With half-time approaching, they were in a real battle, trailing 10-6 on merit – but thereafter it was a familiar story for anyone who has had the privilege of seeing this side first-hand in 2019. Thirty unanswered points, five brilliant tries and a dominant second-half display later, the Rhinos had been comprehensively dispatched, albeit despite a late comeback from them to add a semblance of respectability to the scoreline.
Leeds afforded the Super League leaders a guard of honour pre-match after recently securing a second successive League Leader’s Shield. However, there was very little in the way of sentiment from the hosts when the game got underway. The Rhinos were much the stronger side in the opening quarter – but they were unable to convert any of their sustained pressure.
And having turned possession over in prime attacking opportunities on numerous occasions, the Saints made them pay. Following a half-break from Mark Percival, the league leaders kept the ball alive long enough for Jack Welsby to turn the ball on for Regan Grace, the Welsh wing finishing in the corner to break the deadlock.
That, however, seemed to rid Leeds of their attacking profligacy. Eight minutes after falling behind, they were level when a wonderful solo effort from their scrum-half, Richie Myler, made it 6-6. Then, with five minutes until the break, the hosts went ahead when Konrad Hurrell’s fine offload sent Ash Handley over in the corner for his 20th try of the season.
Rhyse Martin missed the conversion, but just as it looked as though the Rhinos would take a four-point lead into half-time, the Saints hit back with the try of the half. Despite their absent first-teamers, the fluidity in the build-up play which led to Kevin Naiqama’s try that levelled the scores was sensational, with the Fijian finishing in the corner to make it 10-10.
How crucial that try proved to be, too. The Saints went almost immediately on the attack after half-time, and by the time Leeds had restored any sort of order, the visitors were out of sight. An error from Luke Briscoe allowed Zeb Taia to touch down a Theo Fages kick, before the second-row claimed his second soon after following marvellous work from Grace.
Then on the hour mark, back-to-back tries came from Naiqama to complete his hat-trick and put the result beyond doubt. A Percival penalty made it 24-10, before Naiqama raced on to two excellent passes from the teenage full-back, Jack Welsby in the space of four minutes. Percival converted both, and even the most ardent Leeds supporters inside Headingley will have been appreciative of what they were witnessing by this stage.
To the Rhinos’ credit – who are still almost certainly too good to go down on the evidence of recent displays – they finished with two well-worked tries of their own. Handley claimed his 21st try of the season, before Briscoe’s ball back inside sent Harry Newman over in the closing seconds. By then though, the result had long since been decided.
Leeds Walker; Briscoe, Newman, Hurrell, Handley; Lui, Myler; Cuthbertson, Lunt, Semanufagai, Martin, Ferres, Merrin. Interchange Dwyer, Sutcliffe, Peteru, Donaldson.
Tries Myler, Handley 2, Newman Goals Martin 2
St Helens Welsby; Costello, Naiqama, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Thompson, Smith, Lees, Taia, Peyroux, Bentley. Interchange Amor, Ashworth, Batchelor, Eaves
Tries Grace, Naiqama 3, Taia 2 Goals Percival 6
Referee C Kendall. Attendance 12,153