Lee Smith was Leeds' unexpected hero as they retained their Super League title and ruined St Helens' party for the second year running.
Two second-half tries from Danny McGuire made the difference on the scoreboard, but the all-round contribution of Smith made him man of the match. Only cleared to play on Tuesday, when he escaped suspension for a boot that made contact with a Wigan opponent's head last week, he moved from the wing to full-back, defended and attacked with poise and panache and surely played himself into England's World Cup squad.
As expected, Leeds tried to compensate for the absence of the injured Brent Webb by moving Smith and drafting in Ryan Hall for his first match since breaking his foot in July. That was a gamble that Brian McClennan was obliged to take, but Daniel Anderson decided against risking the prop Jason Cayless, starting instead with Bryn Hargreaves, with Nick Fozzard on the bench.
Both of Leeds' relative novices were to play major roles in a compelling first half, but it was Saints who made the better start. Wet and windy conditions at Old Trafford were popularly supposed to favour the Rhinos, but some exquisite dry-weather rugby produced the game's first try, after five minutes.
That big-match master, Sean Long, put in a lovely reverse pass to send Lee Gilmour galloping through. He drew Smith and exchanged passes with Paul Wellens and there was James Graham, the winner of so many individual awards, to score. Long landed the goal, and then released Gilmour again. But then Smith began to show his attacking skills. Returning a tricky touchline kick from Francis Meli, he looked like going all the way until he was stopped by Wellens' superb tackle. After 22 minutes, however, he was not to be denied.
Losing the ball in a two-man tackle, Smith got the penalty to take his side upfield. Rob Burrow found Jamie Jones-Buchanan – suffering from a head wound which was pumping blood through a heavy bandage – and he slipped a wonderful one-handed ball for Smith to score. Kevin Sinfield kicked a difficult conversion.
It got better for Leeds before half-time when Sinfield threw a long pass, Keith Senior's fingertips moved it on and Hall beat Meli with a clever kick and won the race to touch down.
Anderson blasted his troops at half-time and their response was swift. Two minutes into the second half, Long kicked for the corner, Ade Gardner outjumped Scott Donald and Matt Gidley took his knock-down to score. Long's kick made it all square, but then McGuire found something extra. He timed his run to coincide with Sinfield's beautifully disguised grubber kick under the posts.
That ushered in a period of Saints pressure which, after Fozzard and Graham had been stopped on the line, yielded a try. James Roby's long cut-out pass gave Gardner a clear passage down the right, but this time Long could not add the goal.
It was important that Leeds responded quickly and they did so when Sinfield hoisted a high kick which Meli fumbled. McGuire was lurking and his side-step got him over the line and left his captain an easy kick.
There were still 18 minutes to play, more than enough for St Helens to turn the game around. They had plenty of field position, but they could not fashion a clear-cut chance against opponents who were now sensing back-to-back titles.
Long sliced his last attacking kick into touch. That was one of several areas in which Leeds, who were thrashed by Saints two weeks ago, were superior last night. It will take a remarkable side, playing at the top of their form, to take the trophy from them. On the night, Saints were not quite that.
St Helens: Wellens; Gardner, Gidley, Talau, Meli; Pryce, Long; Hargreaves, Cunningham, Graham, Gilmour, Wilkin, Flannery. Substitutes used: Roby, Clough, Fozzard, Fa'asavalu
Leeds: Smith; Hall, Ablett, Senior, Donald; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield. Substitutes used: Lauitiiti, Scruton, Bailey, Kirke.
Referee: A Klein (Keighley).Reuse content