Smith try double just grand for Leeds

Leeds Rhinos 18 St Helens 10: Union-bound back says farewell in the best style possible by keeping Super League title in Yorkshire
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The Independent Online

A controversial second try from Lee Smith gave him a fairy-tale ending to his Leeds career here last night and denied one to Sean Long. The Rhinos completed an unprecedented hat-trick of Super League titles, thanks to a try which was allowed despite looking suspiciously offside, and some superb organisation and defence from the man-of-the-match, Kevin Sinfield.

"That's the way it goes," said a philosophical Saints coach, Mick Potter, of the crucial decision from the video referee, Phil Bentham. "I'll have to have a look at it myself, but I asked our bench how it looked and they said no try. The teams are that close that one kick, one bounce, one ricochet can win you or lose you the match."

It took just a minute for the legendary animosity between the teams to surface for the first time, Brent Webb flooring Ade Gardner with a high tackle. Another penalty, this one for offside, put Saints in an attacking position and that was where they spent much of the opening phase of the game.

They got their reward after 13 minutes when Jon Wilkin kicked down the left-hand channel. The ball took a deflection off the foot of Sinfield and the youngest player on the field, Kyle Eastmond, won the battle with Smith to grab it and go in for a try which he converted himself.

Leeds' best chance came from Sinfield's 40-20 kick, but that opportunity disappeared when Jamie Jones-Buchanan was stopped just short and Webb was penalised for tackling Long in the air. Soon after, Saints went further ahead, Long's high kick creating enough confusion to yield a penalty which Eastmond slotted over.

Saints were looking comfortable, but that all changed in the 10 minutes before half-time. First Matt Diskin lunged over from dummy half and did well to force the ball down.

Then Danny McGuire put a kick behind the try line, Francis Meli failed to make it safe and Smith, in his last match before switching to rugby union with Wasps, touched down.

Sinfield could convert neither try, so these closest of rivals were level at the break – which was a relief to Leeds on the balance of play.

An error was also responsible for Leeds taking the lead at the start of the second half. Gardner allowed Sinfield's kick-off to bounce into touch and the Rhinos' captain surprised Saints by chipping over a drop-goal.

Gardner almost made amends by putting Saints back in front from Matt Gidley's pass, but the combined efforts of Ryan Hall and Webb forced him into touch, albeit at the price of a penalty for Webb's use of his knees.

Saints did regain the lead when the diminutive Rob Burrow, of all people, went high in a tackle on Long and Eastmond again obliged. That advantage was short-lived. Keiron Cunningham, just back on the field after treatment on his hand, was penalised for interference on Kylie Leuluai, right in front of the St Helens sticks, from where Sinfield could not miss.

Eastmond was agonisingly close to a possible match-winning second try with 12 minutes to play, tiptoeing along the touchline only to be carried into the corner-flag by Sinfield's magnificent tackle. Four minutes later, Smith was ruled fractionally onside when he chased McGuire's kick and got the touch-down for his second of the night. It looked a debatable decision on the aerial view, but it put Leeds safe, even before Burrow's late drop-goal.

Long, off to Hull after 12 trophy-laden years with Saints, refused to blame the video referee's ruling for denying him a dream finish. "We built a lot of pressure, but credit to Leeds, their defence was superb," he said.

It was, said the Leeds forward, Jamie Peacock, the best of their run of three Grand Final victories over Saints. It might not have been as free-flowing as some hoped, nor as ferociously confrontational as it had threatened to be, but it was hard to disagree with him.

Leeds Rhinos 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).

Season's highs and lows

BEST PLAYER Adrian Morley. Consistent and controlled aggression from the inspirational Challenge Cup-winning Warrington captain.

BEST YOUNG PLAYER Sam Tomkins. Gave Wigan a huge lift after claiming the stand-off shirt. A major star of the future for club and country.

BEST VETERAN Keith Senior. Rolled back the years, made a star of Ryan Hall and proved that he is still clearly the best centre Britain has at 34.

BEST IMPORT Brett Hodgson. Full-back and captain has done just about everything for Huddersfield, including winning the Man of Steel.

MOST IMPROVED SIDE Hull Kingston Rovers. Reached fourth place in only their third season in Super League, only to fade in the play-offs.

MOST DISAPPOINTING SIDE Bradford. The Bulls' end-of-season surge came too late to save them from the ignominy of missing the play-offs for the first time.

BEST TRY (ONE) Danny McGuire. The Leeds stand-off's effort against Catalans in the play-off semi-final featured a visionary kick by Scott Donald and a brilliant take at full speed. A dead heat with...

BEST TRY (TWO) Thomas Bosc's magical double kick-ahead for Catalans against Harlequins.

BEST GOAL Kevin Sinfield. For a nerveless effort from the touchline for Leeds against Bradford.

BEST DROP-GOAL Lee Briers. Extra-time winner for Warrington at Hull KR in Challenge Cup quarter-final.

BEST COACH Nathan Brown. He added a new dimension to Huddersfield in his first season in charge, guiding them to third place in Super League and a trip to Wembley in the Challenge Cup final.

BIGGEST BLUNDER Putting the Ashes up for grabs in a single match next month – a decision that was reversed after howls of protest.

BIGGEST GIMMICK ClubCall. Apart from some rather patronising publicity, what did allowing the Leeds Rhinos to choose their semi-final opponents in the play-offs actually achieve?

Dave Hadfield

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