Leeds Rhinos 24
Tries: Hardaker, Moon, Peacock, Watkins
Goals: Sinfield 4/5
St Helens 14
Tries: Percival 2, Savelio
Goals: Walsh 1/3
Reigning Challenge Cup holders Leeds Rhinos produced a clinical performance to edge out Saint Helens 24-14 and book their return to Wembley.
In a bruising Roses encounter, Super League’s top two teams produced some scintillating rugby league to thrill the 11,000-strong crowd at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium.
The Rhinos showed their attacking intent from the start, offloading the ball at will and moving the ball wide early.
After gaining threatening field position from a penalty, Zak Hardaker scythed through the Saints defence to put Leeds ahead with only three minutes on the clock. Kevin Sinfield converting.
The Lancashire outfit were struggling with the pace which Leeds were playing the game, as the Rhinos made ground at will thanks to some strong running and skilful offloads.
Ten minutes later and James Roby was caught offside, allowing Leeds skipper Sinfield to make it 8-0 from the tee.
Saints coach Keiron Cunningham, a seven-time Challenge Cup winner as a player, quickly turned to substitutes Mose Masoe and Atelea Vea, who helped gain the Red Vee a foothold in the game for the first time.
However after Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook knocked on near the Leeds line, the Rhinos broke away in exhilaratingly ruthless fashion.
Pocket rocket Rob Burrow, on in place of injured Paul Aiton, made the initial break, before the ball found its way to centre Joel Moon via the hands of Sinfield and Kallum Watkins.
With Ryan Hall on his outside, Moon smoothly dummied to ghost over the line himself. Sinfield’s conversion rebounding off the upright.
An error from the kick-off gave Saints the perfect opportunity to get their first points of the night, but McCarthy-Scarsbrook once more lost the ball in contact.
The reigning Super League champions found themselves in good attacking positions on a number of occasions in the first 40, but a combination of poor handling and committed defence thwarted their advances.
Eventually their passes stuck, and on the stroke of half-time prop Alex Walmsley broke away, with supporting full-back Adam Quinlan working the space to allow Mark Percival to dot down in the corner. Luke Walsh couldn’t convert meaning Leeds went in 12-4 up at the break.
Despite that late setback, Leeds started the second half in the same vein they started the first, and scored a stunning try through the most unlikely source.
Once again the back three diffused a Saints kick and made superb ground, and once again offloads followed.
Somewhat unusually the ball found its way to veteran prop Jamie Peacock, who will retire at the end of the season, who remarkably sidestepped two Saints players to dive over underneath the sticks. Sinfield converting to extend the lead to 14 points.
With both sets of players rested from the interval, the game continued to be played at a frantic pace, with Leeds having to do their fair share of goal line defending.
The pressure eventually told and young prop Andre Savelio crashed his way over from close range, despite suspicions of a double movement. Walsh goaled to cut the deficit to 18-10.
Only minutes later and Saints struck again through Percival’s second of the night, who crossed on the blindside. Walsh failed to convert for the second occasion.
With the game in the balance, arguably for the first time of the night, the tension of the players became increasingly evident.
The Rhinos landed the killer blow through the ever-threatening Watkins, who steamed on to a Sinfield pass close to the line and stepped his way over. Sinfield’s conversion regaining a 10-point lead
Worryingly, with ten minutes remaining, Leeds stalwart Jamie Jones-Buchanan had to be stretchered off the field with a knee injury after a shuddering hit from Travis Burns, only two weeks after returning from a hamstring problem in an injury-hit stadium.
Saints desperately tried everything to force another try but Leeds’ defence held out and the Rhinos will now face either Warrington Wolves or Hull KR at Wembley on August 29.