THE UNBEATEN Super League leaders took full advantage of their good fortune in playing what should have been one of their most dangerous rivals three days after Wembley. Last night St Helens produced some spectacular rugby at Knowsley Road as they cruised to their eighth win in a row and went three points clear at the top, but they know that this was not the real Leeds they were playing.
Under the circumstances, Leeds did well to have only four absentees from their Challenge Cup final line-up, with Iestyn Harris held back for emergencies on the bench. Those crises began soon, a forward pass giving Saints scrum possession and Paul Newlove sending Anthony Sullivan racing past Leroy Rivett for the first points of the evening.
All too soon, Leeds were guilty of another blunder, Jamie Mathiou losing possession in Fereti Tuilagi's tackle and the ball being moved to the left for Newlove to power over. Within two minutes, Sean Long had accepted Saints' third try, backing up Paul Atcheson's break.
Remarkably, Leeds came back with two tries in as many minutes. The first saw Rivett palming the ball back to Darren Fleary and the second when Francis Cummins reached Ryan Sheridan's clever little kick.
That began to look a mere hiccup when fast passing allowed Chris Joynt to charge over and Leeds' task became even harder when Brad Godden was sent to the sin-bin for trying to slow the play-the-ball. Paul Sculthorpe soon took advantage of the gaps for Saints' fifth try with Tony Stewart going over before half-time.
Long threw a dummy to open a gaping hole for the first try of the second half, before Stewart unselfishly sent in Atcheson after doing all the damage himself. Newlove laid on another for Sullivan, but Leeds then enjoyed their best period of possession until Sonny Nickle celebrated his 30th birthday by plunging over. Long's smart kick gave Stewart his second, Andy Hay claiming a consolation for Leeds before Chris Smith rounded off with a try for Saints. Long finished with seven goals to add to his two tries. Another two points for St Helens; no marks for the fixture planners.
"People have been robbed here tonight, the spectators being the main ones," said the Leeds coach, Graham Murray, of scheduling that he described as "a disgrace".
St Helens: Atcheson; Tuilagi, Stewart, Newlove, Sullivan; Barrow, Long; O'Neill, Cunningham, Nickle, Joynt, Perelini, Sculthorpe. Substitutes used: Smith, Jonkers, Edmundson, Wellens.
Leeds Rhinos: St Hilaire; Rivett, Golden, Godden, Cummins; Sinfield, Sheridan; Mathiou, Newton, Fleary, Hay, Morley, Glanville. Substitutes used: Sterling, Farrell, Masella.
Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).