THE MOST sterling fightback of the season was submerged in a Leeds second wave last night in a match of genuine top-of-the-table quality.
St Helens finished up on the wrong side of a clear-cut scoreline, but they showed great character to level the scores early in the second half.
The trouble was that Leeds were equally determined and the way that Iestyn Harris inspired them to pull clear once more marked them down as a team that will go the full distance this season.
Saints had the chastening experience of trailing 18-0 without playing badly. They tried everything they knew to breach Leeds' defence but were kept out by tackling that was ferocious even by the standards the Headingley side have set this season.
Meanwhile, Leeds were razor-sharp in attack, taking advantage of all their opportunities to stack up three converted tries.
Harris and Francis Cummins stretched Saints on the right to prepare the way for the first try after four minutes. When the ball went the other way, Saints were short-handed and when Chris Smith missed his tackle on Brad Godden Marcus St Hilaire was in at the corner.
A wonderful ball around the corner from Terry Newton to Adrian Morley set up the second, although Saints strongly suspected a forward pass.
Even when things went wrong, they came out right for Leeds. Daryl Powell could not hold another Newton pass, but had the presence of mind to kick the ball ahead. Powell must have thought that his days of scoring 45-yard tries were past, but he made it to the line.
It was vital for St Helens to make a breakthrough before half-time and they did so when a rare Leeds mistake, Darren Fleary dropping the ball near his line, led to Paul Sculthorpe going over.
Immediately after half-time, the power of Vila Matautia took him over for another Saints try, also converted by Sean Long.
When Paul Newlove went half the length of the field from Sculthorpe's pass, Saints were right back in it. Long could not add that goal, but a penalty soon brought the scores level.
But Harris' perfect goalkicking exhibition continued with a penalty to restore Leeds' lead. His brilliant run direct from the base of the scrum then produced a try that put them back in control.
Harris still had time to create a try for Ryan Sheridan with two minutes to play to leave a scoreline which was a harsh commentary on Saints' efforts.
A game that reflected much credit on both sides ended with controversy, with the St Helens coach, Shaun McRae, claiming that one of his players had been racially abused by an opponent, leading to Keiron Cunningham's intervention that lead him to being sin-binned. St Helens are asking the Rugby League to investigate that allegation.
Leeds: Harris; Rivett, Cummins, Godden, St Hilaire; Powell, Sheridan; Fleary, Newton, McDermott, Morley, Farrell, Glanville. Substitutes used: Holroyd, Golden, Hay, Mathiou.
St Helens: Atcheson; C Smith, D Smith, Newlove, Sullivan; Hammond, Long; Goldspink, Cunningham, O'Neill, Perelini, Davidson, Sculthorpe. Substitutes used: Pickavance, Matautia, Anderson.
Referee: J Connolly (Wigan).