Saints returned to the Totally Wicked Stadium for their first home game of 2023 after being crowned as the best side in the World as they faced the Leeds Rhinos in a repeat of the 2022 Grand Final.
Few could conceive of anything other than a Saints win, and most would predict that the margin of victory would be substantial after the Rhinos had started the season with back-to-back losses, Saints despatching the Castleford Tigers with some ease last Sunday.
The bookies favoured Saints and gave the Rhinos a fourteen-point start on the coupon, most observers thinking that this was a little over respectful to Rohan Smith´s side.
It was a full house, looking forward to enjoying a Saints masterclass.
On seven minutes, and the Rhinos first possession in the Saints half, Sione Mata´utia was sin-binned for a late tackle on Aiden Sezer, the Rhinos half back leaving the field for a Head Impact Assessment.
With an extra man it was a sensational scoring start for the Rhinos when Nene MacDonald broke down the wing, passing inside to Richie Myler who in turn passed to Ash Handley who turned Jonny Lomax inside out with a great step to go in by the right upright. Rhyse Martin added the conversion for 6-0.
On fifteen Saints made a breakaway downfield after thwarting a Leeds attack, and after the Rhinos were penalised for not square at the marker, Joey Lussick darted from dummy half to stretch for the line to score. Tommy Makinson added the conversion to level the scores.
Just before the twenty minute mark Lewis Dodd gave Saints the lead for the first time in the game after stepping off both feet and bamboozling the Leeds defence to dive over under the sticks. Makinson added the easy goal for 12-6.
On twenty-three it was the Rhinos turn for a four pointer when Sezer took an up and under on the Saints forty before putting in another kick, this time collected by Martin who span over the line under a tackle. He added the conversion and things were all level again, the Saints fans noticeably hushed.
A catastrophic error in the Leeds defence, Derrell Olpherts spilling a Bake Austin pass on twenty-seven, gifted Dodd a second try as he picked up the loose ball and walked in. Makinson was on target again for 18-12.
The Rhinos ended the half with three successive sets in the Saints twenty but great defence kept them out, the home side taking a hard earned six point lead into the break. It was tougher going than anyone exxpected.
On forty-four Saints extended their lead when a Jack Welsby kick through was taken and grounded by Mark Percival under the tackle of MacDonald, to force the ball onto the ground for a four pointer. Makinson was on target again, the lead now twelve points with Saints seemingly edging to safety.
Austin conceded a penalty on his own line for dissent, a cardinal sin, but Makinson was unable to take advantage as he uncharacteristically kicked his penalty attempt wide.
On fifty-seven Curtis Sironen was sin-binned, again for a late hit on the kicker, this time Myler.
Two minutes later Sam Walters was the provider as Cam Smith took the pass to crash over by the right upright. Martin added the conversion, and the Saints lead was back down to a single converted try.
Just as Leeds grabbed themselves some hope, Justin Sangare knocked-on from the kick off. Two plays later a kick through was chased by Makinson but he knocked on in the act of scoring and the Rhinos had played their ´Get Out of Jail Free´ card.
There was just over ten minutes remaining, Saints back to thirteen players, when a never say die move from the Rhinos saw Martin spin out of a tackle after some incredible scrambled attack, to get the ball on the deck. Martin added the conversion, and the sides were locked up, that earlier missed penalty from Makinson was coming back to haunt Saints.
Austin attempted a drop goal on seventy-six but the Saints defence did well to charge it down but two minutes later Myler was hit late by Konrad Hurrell after putting in a kick, the Saints man shown a red card for direct contact with the head.
Fifteen seconds from the final hooter the Rhinos set up for the drop goal and Blake Austin slotted to seal a sensational 25-24 win.
The final hooter sounded to home fan booing around the Totally Wicked Stadium as the Leeds lads celebrated in front of their travelling support. The Rhinos stuck in the game and knuckled down to grind out the win while Saints imploded when things were not going their way. Uncharacteristic Saints indiscipline, with two yellow cards and a red for Hurrell, cost them the points while the Rhinos got their season underway in incredible style, albeit three games in.
St Helens: Welsby, Makinson (4G), Hurrell (SO on 78), Percival (T), Benninson, Lomax, Dodd (2T), Walmsley, Lussick (T), Lees, Mata´utia (SB on 7), Sironen (SB on 57), Knowles. Subs: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Bell, Wingfield, Royle. 18th Man: Davies.
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Fusitu´a, Macdonald, Handley (T), Olpherts, Austin (DG), Sezer, Holroyd, O´Connor, Tetevano, McDonnell, Martin (2T, 4G), Smith (T). Subs: Leeming, Walters, Sangare, Donaldson. 18th Man: Tindall.
Score Progression: (SB), 0-4, 0-6, 4-6, 6-6, 10-6, 12-6, 12-10, 12-12, 16-12, 18-12: HT : 22-12, 24-12, (SB), 24-16, 24-18, 24-22, 24-24, (SO), 24-25: FT.
Lead Exchanges: Leeds – Square – St Helens – Square – St Helens – Square - Leeds.
Referee: Chris Kendall.