Leeds 12 St Helens 26: Golden Graham raises Saints as Rhinos' charge falls short

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Saints remain on course for a third Challenge Cup in a row after fighting off a comeback by opponents who matched them for courage and commitment in an epic semi-final but not quite for sheer class.

To beat St Helens at the moment in any competition, let alone one they cherish as much as the cup, requires an awful lot to go in your favour. In Hudders-field yesterday very little went for Leeds, who suffered from injuries before and during the match and from frustration at their inability to get on top in the skirmish with this outstanding St Helens side.

Saints had the edge through Leon Pryce and Sean Long at half-back and through the non-stop destructive work of forwards such as James Graham, whose first burst of action set a level of intensity that rarely flagged over the 80 minutes.

"James had a huge game but so did some of our more unheralded players like Chris Flannery," said the Saints coach, Dan-iel Anderson. "We had so many opportunities to put the game to bed but Leeds were very courageous. We showed our professionalism when we needed it."

There was a pre-match setback for Leeds when they were forced to go into the fray without their New Zealand Test full-back, Brent Webb, who had not recovered sufficiently from a back injury.

Unsurprisingly, Saints tested his replacement, Lee Smith, from the start, but he passed his first examination when he retrieved a kick from the second-rower Jon Wilkin and brought it back into play.

Nor did Leeds obviously lack any early fluency with the ball, thinking for a moment that they had taken the lead through Rob Burrow only to see the try disallowed for a hurl forward from Scott Donald.

Almost immediately, Saints gave an object lesson in clinical finishing. Long took a pass from Keiron Cunningham, sold a dummy and then found Flannery steaming up on his hip. It looked a little bit too easy but Leeds defended their line fiercely after that, albeit at a cost.

Ryan Hall dived at Pryce's feet courageously to deny Saints one try and was left very groggy on the wing. Then Burrow, that bravest of undersized defenders, got his head in the wrong place tackling Lee Gilmour and had to leave the pitch, not knowing what day it was never mind what round of the cup.

Pryce lost the ball reaching over the try line after the old firm of Cunningham and Long had shredded the overworkedRhinos defence, but Leeds got some reward for hanging in there when Wilkin was penalised for carrying on a tackle on Smith and Kevin Sinfield put over the two points.

Circumstances continued to contrive against Leeds, though, with Clinton Toopi injuring his knee before Long and Pryce combined for the latter finally to get the try he had been threatening.

Leeds were shell-shocked, and it showed in Sinfield's decision to attempt a goal from halfway with the last kick of the half.

The contest seemed to be over when Francis Meli's break set up Wilkin for the third Saints try early in the second half. But Leeds, to their eternal credit, dug deep to get back into contention.

Ali Lauitiiti got over from close range and then Keith Senior, who had just been kept out of the corner by sheer weight of numbers, got his pass to the unmarked Donald to cut the margin to six points.

That was enough to persuade Leeds to get the game little Burrow back into the match, but a harsh penalty against Smith for not playing the ball properly robbed them of their momentum and allowed Long to stretch the lead to eight.

When man of the match Graham crowned a tireless performance by sending Bryn Hargreaves in, it really was all over, although Leeds underlined their honest defiance with a late try through Kylie Leuluai.

Leeds must now refocus on trying to retain their Super League title, with their coach, Brian McClennan, finding consolation in the sheer bravery of their efforts at Huddersfield.

"We take a lot of solace from that," he said. "The players can look at each other and know that the man next to them did hisbest as well. We just weren'tgood enough."

Even a full-strength Leeds side, fit, healthy and in luck, might not have been good enough, which could be a daunting thought for Hull and Wakefield as they face each other in today's second semi-final.

"They are going to be very hard to beat in the final," McClennan said, to which Anderson, now deep into his final season with Saints, had a practised reply.

"We're favourites in just about every game we play," he said. "But we handle favouritism well."

Leeds: Smith; Hall, Toopi, Senior, Donald; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Lauitiiti, Ellis, Sinfield. Substitutes used: Scruton, Ablett,Kirke, Worrall.

St Helens: Wellens; Gardner, Gidley, Talau, Meli; Pryce, Long; Hargreaves, Cunningham, Graham, Gilmour, Wilkin, Flannery. Substitutes used: Roby, Cayless, Clough, Fa'asavalu.

Referee: A Klein (Keighley).