SAINTS suffered some unwarranted over-the-top criticism following their Carnegie Challenge Cup exit at the hands of arch-rivals Wigan Warriors but they silenced their knockers in spectacular style at Headingley on Monday night.
Few teams out-smart Leeds twice in the space of eight weeks, and the manner in which they completed a Super League double over their 2011 Grand Final conquerors suggests it would be foolhardy to write-off Saints’ chances of reaching Old Trafford for a seventh successive year in October.
They resembled a wounded animal, stung by all the post-Wigan match brick-bats aimed in their direction, and responded with a breath-taking all-round team performance – their best of a topsy-turvy campaign to date.
Chosen by Sky Sports as the first of a series of Monday night fixtures, it lived up to all the media-driven pre-match hype, enthralling a 15,000-strong crowd and also captivating a wide TV audience.
Rich in entertainment from start to finish, it also produced all the other qualities which makes rugby league a compelling and eye-catching sport.
Both sides produced a series of big hits in the battle for supremacy, allied to some top-class handling skills, but after 80 minutes of pulsating action no one could dispute Saints’ right to head back across the Pennines with two priceless points in the bag.
The game had started at a fast and furious pace in which Leeds seized the early initiative – Ryan Hall swatting aside Tom Makinson in a blistering 12th-minute run down the left before slipping the ball inside to the supporting Danny McGuire, who scored with ease.
Skipper Kevin Sinfield took his career points total beyond the 3,000 barrier with the resultant conversion but within nine minutes Saints restored parity.
Leeds failed to deal with an awkward bouncing kick from Lance Hohaia and in the mayhem which followed Lomax pounced on a loose ball and squeezed over the line.
Makinson goaled and, just after the half-hour mark, repeated the feat as Saints edge in front for the first time at the end of a clinical piece of finishing.
Tony Puletua, playing his first since Easter Monday following a shoulder problem, set up the chance after delivering an audacious pass as he was tackled into the path of James Roby.
The fleet-footed hooker then burst through an inviting gap in the Leeds defence, handed the ball over to Jonny Lomax who, in turn, sent skipper Paul Wellens over the whitewash for his 199th try in 420 club games since 1998.
But on the stroke of half-time, Leeds regained a foothold in the game, cashing-in on penalty awarded deep in their own half when Makinson held down Zak Hardaker.
They quickly moved the ball upfield, allowing Sinfield to create a opening for the supporting Brett Delaney to crash over.
Sinfield’s second goal set the stage for a nerve-tingling second half in which the hosts struck first after 48 minutes – Jamie Jones-Buchanan darting over and his skipper adding the extras.
However, Saints had no intentions of lying down and reduced the deficit to 18-16 three minutes later following a spectacular try from Makinson.
The winger latched on to a Michael Shenton pass, and although feeling the full impact of a Brent Webb tackle, managed to ground the ball one-handed in the right-hand corner.
Growing in confidence and stature by the minute Saints began to dominate proceedings and their territorial superiority was rewarded just short of the hour mark.
A great one-two between Lomax and Sia Soliola led to the former scooting over the whitewash with Makinson’s third goal giving Saints a 22-18 advantage.
It was also Makinson’s last major contribution as he carried off on a stretcher suffering from a neck injury which resulted in Sinfield being placed on report for an alleged swinging arm.
But the setback didn’t affect Saints’ powers of concentration and they went 10 points clear in the 66th minute when, following a play-the-ball situation,
Roby’s bullet-like flat pass across the line sending Jon Wilkin roaring in and left Lomax a relatively straight-forward conversion.
The scrum-half then added a 75th-minute penalty and two minutes later ended any hopes of a last-gasp Leeds comeback by slotting over a drop goal.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Smith, Watkins, Hardaker, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Ablett.
Subs: Bailey, Clarkson,Griffin, Lunt (all used).
Saints: Wellens, Makinson, Shenton, Wheeler, Meli, Hohaia, Lomax, Laffranchi, Roby, Perry, Flannery, Soliola, Wilkin.
Subs: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Flanagan, Clough, Puletua (all used).
Referee: Steve Ganson (St Helens).