The habitual Super League champions of Leeds clung onto their crown, but only thanks to a late Danny McGuire drop goal at the end of an epic. Saints had fought back from 10 points down, only for the Rhinos to do what they do so well at this time of year.
They will now play Warrington or Wigan, with Old Trafford the prize for the victor.
St Helens might be Leeds’ victims of choice in Grand Finals, but they arrived at Headingley having won their last three games there. They also had the momentum – so often a Rhinos’ prerogative – that comes from making their charge from nowhere.
Both sides were as strong as they could be, arguably the strongest they have been all season, and Old Trafford beckoned – but only for one of them. As Leeds’ Carl Ablett said succinctly in the build-up: “It’s do or die.” He was one who showed that he had no intention of letting the Rhinos’ season expire prematurely.
The game as a whole, and the credibility of the play-off system in particular, needed a close contest after Huddersfield’s humiliation of Hull on Thursday – and that is what they got.
All the early pressure came from Leeds, with Saints having to scramble desperately to negate the threat of their wide players. Completely against the run of play, Saints almost took the lead when Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook was held up over the line.
More characteristic of the action was the way Leeds eventually took the lead after 31 minutes, Kallum Watkins taking Zak Hardaker’s pass and twisting his way over like a natural finisher. Kevin Sinfield surprisingly missed the conversion and McGuire was close to a second Leeds try, but that, for all their dominance, was it for the first half.
The game began to open up four minutes into the second half, when the limping McGuire put through a perfect kick for Joel Moon to touch down.
A couple of mistakes and a penalty let Saints back into it, scoring from Wilkin’s short pass to Willie Manu. Then Lance Hohaia stole the ball from Watkins to put Leeds under the cosh.
The game was now in the balance, and that was where it stayed until Watkins was penalised for a high tackle on Paul Wellens, Saints marched upfield and Jon Wilkin’s superb pass gave Manu an equalising second.
Jordan Turner missed the kick, but Sinfield put the restart straight out and Wilkin failed with a drop goal.
“To come out on top in such an epic game makes me a very proud man,” said Leeds’ coach Brian McDermott, who admitted that McGuire was one of several walking wounded, long before he landed what was only the fourth drop-goal of his career.
Leeds: Hardaker; Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Delaney. Substitutes used: Bailey, Achurch, Kirke, Sutcliffe.
St Helens: Lomax; Makinson, Turner, Meli, Swift; Wilkin, Hohaia; Puletua, Roby, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Soliola, Manu, Jones. Substitutes used: Wellens, Laffranchi, Clough, Walmsley.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington)