Saints reach Grand Final
Defending champions hold off Leeds in qualifying semi-final
By Graeme Mair. Last Updated: 29/09/07 12:06am
Pryce: Moment of magic
St Helens prevailed 10-8 from a ferocious qualifying semi-final against Leeds Rhinos at Knowsley Road to secure their place in the Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 13.
Leon Pryce's first-half try and three Matty Smith goals proved just enough for Saints, who were forced to give a defensive masterclass in the second-half to keep the result intact.
It was the first time they had beaten Leeds in three meetings this season, although the visitors also emerged with great credit and will be confident of setting up a Grand Final repeat when they meet either Hull FC or Wigan Warriors at Headingley Carnegie on October 5.
The tone of the contest was set when Leeds prop Jamie Peacock took a high shot at Nick Fozzard to concede a penalty from the very first tackle of the game.
Despite St Helens enjoying all the initial possession and territory, it was the visitors who opened the scoring with an interception effort from winger Lee Smith in the sixth minute.
Smith had already narrowly failed to pick off one wayward pass, but made no mistake when presented with a second opportunity as Saints camped near the try-line.
Second row Jon Wilkin was the culprit, throwing a blind pass that presented the ball on a plate for Smith to go the length of the field down the right touchline.
Kevin Sinfield added the extra two points but shaved the wrong side of the post with a penalty attempt after Fozzard was pulled up for illegal use of the arm in the tackle.
That let off was the cue for St Helens to finally turn their domination of the ball into points courtesy of a sublime moment from Pryce.
The stand-off realised that Leeds' defensive alignment was drifting right too quickly and took full advantage by dummying to pass before cutting back inside Peacock and Rob Burrow and sauntering untouched between the posts.
Smith - whose performance at scrum-half ensured the injured Sean Long was not missed - added the conversion and four minutes later put his side into an 8-6 lead by slotting a straightforward penalty after Brent Webb was harshly penalised for delaying the play of the ball.
The play remained dominated by the forwards with neither side keen to throw the ball wide, a reflection of both the greasy handling conditions and the importance of the occasion.
There were no further points during the final 18 minutes of the first-half, the Rhinos coming closest when Matt Diskin's grubber kick rebounded off a post into the grateful arms of Paul Wellens with a trio of attacking players ready to pounce.
Leeds skipper Sinfield brought the scores level at 8-8 in the 51st minute after Matthew Gidley was penalised for grappling with Ian Kirke's neck while attempting to complete a tackle.
With the visitors visibly growing in confidence, the errors began to creep into St Helens' performance - they almost gifted a try in the 54th minute when Wellens only narrowly managed to beat Jordan Tansey to the ball over the try-line, while moments later the video referee was required to spot a knock-on as Burrow attempted to dive over in the left corner.
A drop-goal attempt from Burrow rebounded off the post as defences remained on top, but another blatant high shot from Peacock on Fozzard gifted the opportunity for Saints to re-claim the lead with a 69th-minute penalty from Smith.
And that proved the match-winner as committed defending from Saints in the final stages kept Leeds at bay, despite the visitors enjoying almost constant possession for the last 10 minutes.
The Rhinos only clear chance came in the 74th minute when Danny McGuire successfully chased a kick ahead and flicked the ball up to the onrushing Webb, who was stopped inches short of the line by a superb tackle from Gidley.
The result means St Helens will have two weeks to prepare for their Grand Final defence, while Leeds must respond on home soil next Friday.