A hat-trick of tries from teenage winger Ash Handley helped Leeds to a handsome 41-16 win over reigning champions St Helens that takes them six points clear at the top of Super League.
The 19-year-old Handley got his big chance due to an injury to England winger Tom Briscoe and how he has seized it, with six tries in just six Super League appearances.
The Rhinos simply oozed confidence on the back of their five-match winning run while Saints looked fragile as the one-time leaders crashed to a fourth defeat in their last five matches.
Leeds have now played every other team in Super League and, with just one defeat in their opening 11 matches, will take some stopping as they eye a first league-leaders’ title for six years.
Handley’s first try came against the run of play as he plucked out of the air Josh Jones’ pass intended for debutant winger Matty Fleming of the air and sprinted 90 metres to the other end of the pitch.
Handling errors by Mark Flanagan and Adam Swift ensured Saints remained on the back foot and they fell further behind on 15 minutes when hugely-impressive prop Adam Cuthbertson kept the ball alive on the last tackle and centre Joel Moon produced a delightful one-handed pass out of the back of his hands to get Handley over again.
Stand-off Liam Sutclife, preferred to skipper Kevin Sinfield in Leeds’ starting team, justified his selection with a superb break to create a try for full-back Zak Hardaker and his third conversion made it 18-0 in as many minutes.
It got even better for the visitors when makeshift centre Carl Ablett split open the Saints defence to get veteran half-back Danny McGuire sprinting over from halfway for a fourth try and this time Sinfield, starting as a substitute for the first time for nearly 12 years, added the goal.
Inspired by the never-say-die efforts of England hooker James Roby, St Helens produced their best spell of the match and pulled a try back in fortuitous circumstances when full-back Tom Makinson touched down Jon Wilkin’s kick when for all it looked like a knock-on and Travis Burns added the goal.
That score suddenly brought the game to life but the Rhinos struck a devastating blow to the champions deep into first-half stoppage time when a break out of defence by Kallum Watkins created the position for Sutcliffe to gift-wrap a third try for Handley courtesy of a pin-point kick to the corner.
At 28-6, it looked a hopeless task for the home side but the belated introduction of Australian scrum-half Luke Walsh added a new dimension to their attack and, within four minutes of the restart, he produced a jinking run through the heart of the Leeds defence to create a try for Jordan Turner.
The champions were fired up by the score and props Alex Walmsley and Mose Masoe were both held up over the line as they sought to further close the gap.
The pressure finally paid off on the hour when Walsh’s high kick bounced kindly for Turner to score his second try and Burns’ second conversion cut the gap to 12 points.
But the comeback was snuffed on 66 minutes when another Cuthbertson offload caused havoc in the Saints defence and Sinfield sent Sutcliffe on a jinking run to the line for the match-winning try.
Siinfield put over a drop goal and wrapped up the scoring by converting Moon’s last-minute try.