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Saints end season with dignity after play-off defeat at champions
TWELVE weeks ago despondency reigned when a dispirited Saints side trudged off a soggy Langtree Park pitch after another woeful home defeat against Hull KR that cast doubts as to whether the men in the red vee would make the play-offs.
Back then, for some supporters, the end of the year could not come soon enough.
So with that in mind, a late run of seven wins from eight matches followed by a dignified and brave play-off exit by the narrowest of margins at the home of the champions will probably be viewed in a positive manner.
But that does not stop the defeat at Headingley, courtesy of a late Danny McGuire drop goal being any less painful.
The truth was that Saints had to give it their all at times to simply hang in there, but could and should have won it had they shown a touch more composure in key moments.
And they had first chance to pinch it after Willie Manu’s second try had levelled matters nine minutes from time. Agonisingly, Jordan Turner’s difficult conversion from out wide just drifted past the uprights.
But Saints had a glorious opportunity to steal it when Kevin Sinfield’s restart kick sailed out on the full.
Alas, Saints did not have the kicker with the confidence to poke it over from the half way line. Instead they drilled the ball into touch and laid siege to the Rhinos line. It was not a perfectly executed set for teeing up the drop goal so there was an almost inevitability, given the pressure from the Leeds defence, in Jon Wilkin’s attempt failing to get off the ground.
When it got to this shoot-out stage of the contest a glance down the respective team sheets revealed 35 career drop goals in blue and amber compared to just four wearing the red vee.
And so, after three big yard-eating runs from the ageless warhorse Jamie Peacock, Carl Ablett and Rob Burrow, there was an inevitability about what happened once Leeds got in kicking range.
Although Saints managed to unsettle Sinfield out of his pocket, the ball was simply transferred across to the veteran McGuire who screwed it over on the angle to break Saints’ hearts.
But the defeat was not simply about who had the best drop goal kickers, Saints – for all that they toiled and defended – simply lacked the personnel to make the same inroads up the middle as the Rhinos over the course of the 80 minutes.
With sub Alex Walmsley still feeling the effects of last week’s rib injury and Paul Wellens and Paul Clough not used until after the 50 minute mark, it turned into a big ask of Tony Puletua, Anthony Laffranchi and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook to keep grafting against a rugged and refreshed Rhinos pack.
And at times that showed.
Having failed to make sufficient hard yards through their pack, they tried to take short cuts by shifting it wide to speedster Adam Swift, who although game enough to take on his opposite number found himself usually well covered. Wingers catch the eye when they run them in from half way, but that space has to be earned by the blood and sweat of the big fellas.
Saints trailed 4-0 at the break after failing to get the rub of the green with any early refereeing calls, the harshest being Jonny Lomax being penalised for getting up off the floor after slipping a Leeds tackler.
The Rhinos broke the deadlock to take the lead on the half hour when England centre Kallum Watkins just got on the outside of Francis Meli close to the line, with the video ref adjudging that he had not lost the ball under the weight of Lomax’s tackle.
It could have been worse, with McGuire dropping the ball over the line after making some surprisingly easy yards in front of the Saints posts.
The Rhinos were first out of the blocks in the second half when Joel Moon was quickest to McGuire’s deft grubber.
But back Saints came to give it another blood to water effort.
Trailing 10-0 Saints had it all to do, but with their first real spell of pressure on the Leeds line they scored with a superb Wilkin pass sending Manu cruising to the line.
Turner goaled, but then Saints failed to get any lengthy pressure on the Rhinos line.
When they did get ball they wasted it on two key occasions, twice turning the ball over on the second or third tackle, with even James Roby guilty of a bad call.
A shocking play the ball from Turner when Leeds were looking ragged also let the champions off the hook.
But then Roby and Wilkin again combined with a smartly executed move to send Manu over to set up a last nine minutes of tension and heartache.
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