Leeds, who have not won the Challenge Cup this millennium, became the first side into the quarter-finals of this year’s competition with a Wembley-class performance at Headingley.
St Helens had a perfect record this year until little more than a week ago. They have now lost three on the trot.
They owed this latest defeat not just to the two first-half tries from Zak Hardaker that put them on the back foot and kept them there, but also to the all-round excellence of the Rhinos’ display.
“We had to do it tough at times,” said their captain, Kevin Sinfield. “We had some nervous moments and Saints had a real dig.”
Saints also had a tendency to dig themselves into a few holes. They began with what has become an unfortunate trademark since they started to show some vulnerability this season – knocking on with their first touch of the match.
This time it was the turn of their young prop, Alex Walmsley, to do so. After the pressure had been extended by a contentious call to force them to drop out from under their posts, the delayed punishment arrived in the shape of the first try of the match. From the scrum, Hardaker roared into the line and touched down to give Sinfield an easy conversion.
With both sides highly enterprising, if a little error-prone, prone, it was the 13th minute before Saints struck back, Chris Percival finding a gap in the centres and the aptly named Adam Swift supporting to score. Leeds’ Danny McGuire had one rightly disallowed for stealing the ball after the tackle, but a concern for Saints was that his opposite number, Luke Walsh, appeared to aggravate an elbow injury that was already heavily strapped. He stayed on, but not at full efficiency.
Another feature of the game was the amount of work Leeds’ England wingman, Ryan Hall, got through. The days of waiting on your wing to be invited into the game are well and truly over, and it was no surprise when Hall figured heavily in the try that put the Rhinos ahead and kept them there, his muscular run and offload setting up Hardaker’s second before half-time.
Hardaker’s centre partner, Joel Moon, was another important contributor, drawing the penalty from which Sinfield stretched his side’s lead and then planting the ball down for a try after an incisive attack by Rob Burrow, who finished the game on the bench with his arm in a sling after suffering what was later diagnosed as a broken collarbone.
A 14-point lead against any other side would be a case of a job done, but Saints did indeed hint at one of their famous fightbacks when Jonny Lomax’s cleverly delayed short pass put Josh Jones through a rare hole in the Leeds defence.
A 40/20 kick from Walsh rang alarm bells, but it came to nothing when Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook knocked on.
“We had some really good opportunities, but we weren’t quite good enough to bridge the gap,” said the St Helens coach, Nathan Brown.
Leeds had something in reserve, had they needed it. Danny McGuire, a serial tormenter of Saints in big matches, scored by following up Kallum Watkins’s lovely break and then the old warhorse, Jamie Peacock, completed what ultimately looked a comfortable scoreline from close range.
So is this the year when a generation of Leeds players fill the gap in their trophy cabinets?
“We’ll be giving it our best shot this year,” said Sinfield, “like we do every year.”
Leeds: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Achurch, Delaney, Ablett. Substitutes used: Kirke, Clarkson, Sutcliffe, Singleton.
St Helens: Lomax; Makinson, Turner, Percival, Swift; Wilkin, Mason; Amor, Roby, Walmsley, Soliola, McCarthy- Scarsbrook, Jones. Substitutes used: Wellens, Mascoe, Richards, Greenwood.
Referee: Richard Silverwood.Reuse content