St Helens 13 Leeds 4: Meli knock-out blow ends battle of the heavyweights

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The Independent Online

Saints outlasted rivals who are expected to challenge them for the Super League title this season in a torrid encounter at a freezing Knowsley Road last night.

If it was the Rhinos who had the early edge, it was Saints who took control in the second half, eventually squeezing their visitors out of the game.

"There's not much between us," said Saints' coach, Daniel Anderson. "It was a testament to both teams how much motivation they had for tonight's game. There were a lot of errors but they were all due to pressure."

Leeds' Tony Smith took a similar view of a game that was never the free-flowing spectacle that these sides can produce. "Both teams can be very proud of their defence," he said.

The first genuine heavyweight contest of the Super League season saw Leeds dominate the early stages and their 19-year-old winger, Danny Williams, marked his debut with a try after 22 minutes. Richard Mathers' kick through was perfectly weighted and the new boy was quick enough to catch it and touch down for a try which Kevin Sinfield could not improve.

James Graham was lucky not to go to the sin-bin when he took Rob Burrow late as Leeds kept up the pressure. They had been marginally the more convincing side in a first half that was too often punctuated by penalties and mistakes to be a classic, but two minutes from half-time Saints hit back.

Paul Anderson, who started his long career at Leeds, set it up by slipping a pass off his hip and Lee Gilmour was there for a try which Jamie Lyon converted for a slender interval advantage.

The second half was such an arm wrestle that Saints went against their instincts by going for goal through Lyon to extend their lead when Keith Senior was penalised for interfering at the play-the-ball. More decisive was the try they scored after Chev Walker had lost the ball, bringing it away from his own line after fielding Sean Long's kick. At the end of that set of tackles, Leeds were punished when Francis Meli took a raking pass from the increasingly influential Leon Pryce to go over in the corner.

Saints tightened their grip with Long's drop goal edging them further ahead with 14 minutes left. From that point they could have extended their lead but had done enough to preserve their unbeaten record.

St Helens: Wellens; Gardner, Lyon, Talau, Meli; Pryce, Long; Anderson, Cunningham, Cayless, Gilmour, Sculthorpe, Hooper. Substitutes used: Roby, Wilkin, Graham, Fa'Asavalu.

Leeds: Mathers; Donald, Walker, Senior, Williams; McGuire, Burrow; Bailey, Diskin, Peacock, Lauitiiti, Jones-Buchanan, Sinfield. Substitutes used: Millard, Poching, Feather, Scruton.

Referee: A Klein (London).