Sinfield has St Helens in a recurring nightmare

Leeds 18 St Helens 10: Captain's display means Leeds become most successful side in Super League era
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The Independent Online

Leeds can now lay secure claim to being the most dominant side Super League has yet produced, with a third Grand Final win in a row.

It took the most dubious of tries to decide a match which, whilst painfully tight and richly dramatic, was neither as full of free-flowing rugby nor had the in-your-face aggression it had promised. Instead, we had a contest between the best two teams in the game which showed that, when it matters, the Rhinos have the undeniable edge.

Much of that difference, though, was accounted for by the decision of the video referee Phil Bentham to award Lee Smith the second try of his farewell game in the 73rd minute.

When he chased Danny McGuire's low chip-kick to touch down, the naked eye said offside. The best view on replay, from the lip of the stand, seemed to confirm that, but Smith somehow got the thumbs up. "I thought I was just level, to be honest," he said. "But it was a great kick from Danny."

It meant that his farewell – Smith will be playing rugby union for Wasps at Vicarage Road next season – overshadowed that of Sean Long, in his last game before joining Hull.

"This place has been good to me," said Smith, suddenly sounding less than thrilled at the prospect of leaving. "I could be there 10 years or six months if it doesn't work out."

Both he and Long, however, were overshadowed by the Leeds captain, Kevin Sinfield, whose contribution meant that they might well have won even without Smith's controversial try.

Sinfield had hammered away all week at the theme of the Leeds' players who won their first title five years ago choosing to stick together rather than earning more money elsewhere. Some, like Smith, do go, but the majority elect to stay put.

Nobody epitomised that spirit of the class of 2004 better than him, especially in two moments of the second half. There was the cool, strategic brain that decided on a drop-goal soon after the break – a shrewd psychological ploy if ever there was one.

"After beating them twice, we thought that might start the nightmares," was the way his coach, Brian McClennan, who prepared his side mentally by showing them a film about Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition, described its impact on Saints.

Then there was the sheer willpower that saw him track back and across to nail Kyle Eastmond on the corner-flag to save a try – not merely the tackle of the season, but of a career.

Close as Saints came, this defeat will revive the murmurings about the coaching style of Mick Potter – a man so low-key that many supporters do not trust him to unlock their potential. No other Saints coach for six years has finished the season empty-handed and none has presided over such a loss of attacking fire-power.

What Saturday exposed, however, were deficiencies he inherited and over which he had little control. Saints always looked at least one centre and two front-rowers short of optimum strength for the campaign and it does not help when Leon Pryce is as anonymous at Old Trafford as he has been for most of the season.

The one real bright spot was Eastmond, the youngest player on the field at 20 and the scorer of all Saints' points. He has been cutting his teeth in the centres, but, if Potter had his time again, with the benefit of hindsight he would surely have wanted him closer to the centre of the action, with the ball in his hands as often as possible.

As for Long, whose naughty-boy autobiography and argument with himself over who has and who hasn't placed illicit bets on games can only have been a distraction in the build-up to this one, he did as much as anyone to apply territorial pressure to Leeds.

Like most of his team-mates, he lacked the craft on the night to turn that pressure into points. It all underlined another fault – the lack of genuine pace in the back three, not to mention the growing tendency of their wingers to make damaging errors.

Leeds kept such mistakes to a minimum in what was, by Super League standards, a very English triumph, involving 13 home-grown players. Already without one of their overseas signings, Greg Eastwood, for the whole season and another, Danny Buderus, for most of it, they also lost Ali Lauitiiti with an ankle injury after a few minutes of action.

But that nucleus that has made the Rhinos the outstanding team of their generation held firm. They are going to take some shifting from their position at the pinnacle of the game.

Eastmond will be in England's Four Nations squad when it is named today, along with Wigan's Sam Tomkins.

Leeds: Webb; Donald, Smith, Senior, Hall; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Sinfield. Substitutes used: Lauitiiti, Bailey, Burgess, Kirke.

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

Referee: S Ganson (St Helens).

Leeders: Rhinos' Grand run

*2004: Leeds 16 Bradford 8

Hooker Matt Diskin voted man of the match as the Rhinos win their first title for 32 years, clinched by Danny McGuire's late try.

*2007: Leeds 33 St Helens 6 Leeds make a mockery of their underdog status by sweeping Saints aside in the second half.

*2008: Leeds 24 St Helens 16 Saints strong favourites after a 23-game unbeaten run, but Leeds again rise to the occasion , with McGuire's two second-half tries crucial.

*2009 Leeds 18 St Helens 10

Leeds justify their favouritism, but only just, with a disputed try and two drop-goals making the difference to complete their hat-trick.

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