John Yates: Saints’ pride in defeat

James Roby (third left) celebrates scoring his side's first try of the match during Saints semi-final against Leeds
James Roby (third left) celebrates scoring his side's first try of the match during Saints semi-final against Leeds

Hold your heads up high, lads ... you should be proud of your efforts.

That’s my message to the distraught Saints’ players who failed by a whisker to reach the Old Trafford Grand Final, and a chance to retain their title, at Headingley on Friday night.

Luke Walsh sends a high kick in during Saints semi-final against Leeds

Luke Walsh sends a high kick in during Saints semi-final against Leeds

At the end of a titanic struggle between two of the giants of the sport, which ended in a 20-13 victory for the treble-chasing Rhinos, it was a piece of individual magic from skipper Kevin Sinfield, playing his final home game for the West Yorkshire club before switching codes that settled the issue.

His 40-20 instinctive second half kick as two evenly matched teams battled tooth and nail for supremacy was delivered with unerring accuracy, setting up what proved to be a crucial and defining try for winger Ryan Hall.

Up to that point, Saints had looked the far more likely side to emerge with the spoils, but at the end of a match worthy of the final itself they had to swallow the bitter pill of defeat, even though they had given their best shots on the night.

No one was more proud and pleased by his players’ performance than head coach Keiron Cunningham who, despite the disappointment of a heartbreaking setback, was also magnanimous in his praise of their conquerors and in a sporting gesture of the highest quality expressed the hope that both Sinfield - and retiring team-mate Jamie Peacock - would end their RL playing career on a high.

Leeds Rhinos Ryan Hall (centre, floor) celebrates scoring his side's second try during the First Utility Super League, semi final

Leeds Rhinos Ryan Hall (centre, floor) celebrates scoring his side's second try during the First Utility Super League, semi final

But while it is a case of going back to the drawing board ahead of the 2016 campaign and finding more consistency from the players under his wings.

Cunningham can look forward to a brighter future at Langtree Park.

Paul Wellens, Lance Hohaia, Josh Jones, Mark Flanagan and Mose Masoe will not figure in his plans for 2016 for various reasons but there is a great deal of excitement about incoming players such as 21-year-old Theo Fages from Salford and Samoan duo, Dominique Peyroux and Lami Tasi.

In addition players like Joe Greenwood and Andre Savelio have come on in leaps and bounds in Super League XX and can only improve with more game time under their belts - and don’t forget Jonny Lomax, who missed most of the past season will be fit and raring to go.

And there are more youngsters waiting in the wings ready to challenge for a first team spot. They include Regan Grace (24 tries in 25 Academy outings last term), Matty Fozard and Morgan Knowsley - all three having been called up to the 24-man Wales squad for home matches against Scotland and France later this month.

Calvin Wellington - Grace’s countryman and teammate at Saints - could also have been included in the squad had he not been injured.