Cunningham keeps Saints in sight of third title

St Helens 38 Leeds 30
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The Independent Online

Saints kept alive their hopes of a third Super League title in a row by ending Leeds' season but they were chased all the way in a compelling sudden death play-off.

Two tries apiece from Keiron Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe underlined the contribution of two world-class forwards in a side without many first-choice players but Leeds have a future star of their own in Rob Burrow, the 18-year-old 5ft 4in scrum-half, who was magnificent in a losing cause.

"Cunningham and Scul-thorpe were outstanding,'' the Saints' coach Ian Millward said. "They had a lot of responsibility and they led from the front." The first blow, however, was struck by Burrow, one of the refreshing personalities of the latter stages of the season. Anthony Farrell and Keith Senior paved the way, but it was his pace that took him over the try line.

"He was one of the best players on the field tonight. He was fast and dangerous every time he touched the ball," his coach Daryl Powell said. "But Saints had too much experience for us."

That know-how only asserted itself sporadically during a finely balanced first half. Cunningham spotted a gap to send Steve Hall in for the equaliser and Sculthorpe breached the defensive line for his first to put Saints ahead. Back came Leeds through Francis Cummins, but Cunningham and Sculthorpe gave Saints the upper hand again.

Matt Diskin levelled the scores with a try as the Saints defenders appeared to be obstructed but the home side had their noses in front at the break thanks to the best of Sculthorpe's five goals, a penalty from just short of the halfway line. It was in the 10 minutes after the interval that they killed off Leeds' brave challenge and established a winning advantage.

Cunningham got his second from dummy half and, when Tommy Martyn held up his pass to send Kevin Iro through, Saints looked in control. But Burrow made another run to send Mark Calderwood over and Saints only made sure of victory when Hall squeezed in for his second from Sean Hoppe's pass.

Even then there was time for Burrow to combine with Barrie McDermott for Senior to score, but Saints were on their way to the Boulevard and another sudden-death clash with Hull next Friday.

What this game proved was that, even with key men missing, Saints still have a backbone of quality. Millward had special praise for young forwards like Tim Jonkers, John Stankevitch and Mark Edmondson, who took up the slack in the absence of senior members of the pack.

"There's no big money players there," he said. That is true, but by following the lead of proven winners like Cunningham and Sculthorpe, they moved Saints a step closer to another grand final.

St Helens: Wellens; Hall, Iro, Hoppe, Stewart; Sculthorpe, Martyn; Matautia, Higham, Stankevich, Joynt, Shiels, Cunningham. Substitutes: Edmondson, Jonkers, Kirkpatrick, Cruickshank.

Leeds: Cummins; Walker, Carroll, Senior, Calderwood; Sinfield, Burrow; Fleary, Diskin, McDermott, Farrell, Mercer, Hay. Substitutes: Ward, St Hilaire, Rench, Mathiou.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).