Leeds 11 Saints 10

Leeds' Ian Kirke is stopped in his tracks by Anthony Laffranchi and James Roby.
Leeds' Ian Kirke is stopped in his tracks by Anthony Laffranchi and James Roby.

Leeds are back on course for a third successive Grand Final after a drop goal three minutes from the end from Danny McGuire enabled them to squeeze past St Helens in a gripping preliminary semi-final at Headingley.

Saints second rower Willie Manu’s second try of the match 10 minutes from the end cancelled out scores from Leeds centres Kallum Watkins and Joel Moon and tied the scores to set up a thrilling finish.

However, Jordan Turner was wide with the difficult conversion and team-mate Jon Wilkin was off target with a drop-goal attempt four minutes later before McGuire came up with the most important one-pointer of his career to seal an 11-10 success.

That enabled the reigning champions to complete the line-up for the last four, although they must now wait for Sunday’s ClubCall announcement by Warrington to discover their next opponents.

Saints lost four Grand Finals to the Rhinos and, after this latest tussle, must be wondering what they have to do to get the better of their arch rivals in the play-offs.

It was a tight contest in the first half, although both teams looked dangerous on the counter-attack, with both Saints winger Tom Makinson and Adam Swift getting the chance to show their pace.

It took a tremendous cover tackle from Leeds skipper Kevin Sinfield to deny Swift while Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker underlined his claim to be the best broken-field runner in Super League with a series of breaks from deep.

The champions had the majority of possession in the first half and caused the visitors’ defence plenty of problems through their strong-running back row of Carl Ablett, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Brett Delaney, although the latter pair picked up leg injuries before the break.

Jones-Buchanan went off at 26 minutes with a knee problem and Delaney hung on until half-time, when Leeds led 4-0 courtesy of Watkins’ 20th try of the season on 31 minutes.

Video referee Ben Thaler awarded the score after Watkins had taken Hardaker’s pass and twisted out of Francis Meli’s tackle to reach the the line before losing his grip on the ball.

There was an equally close call five minutes later when McGuire forced his way to the line despite the attention of three defenders to plant the ball on the line but Thaler, using vision from RefCam, ruled he had lost control of it.

Saints’ best chance of the first half came on 25 minutes when prop Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook reached the tryline but was held on his back.

Leeds ought to have been further ahead at half-time but the scoreline took on a fairer reflection three minutes into the second half when McGuire’s stabbed kick to the line bounced perfectly for centre Moon to touch down.

Sinfield’s conversion made it 10-0 but a handling error from prop Jamie Peacock in his own 20-metre area gifted Saints the ideal attacking position and they made the most of it when Wilkin’s sweetly-timed pass got Manu charging over for his first try.

Turner’s goal cut the deficit to just four points and, with Wilkin orchestrating and kicking to good effect, St Helens threatened to take the lead and it took some tremendous defence to keep them out.

It remained scoreless for 20 minutes until Wilkin produced another slick pass to get Manu romping over for his second try which brought the scores level to set the scene for the pulsating finale.