Kristian Woolf admits St Helens took foot off the gas against injury-hit Leeds
St Helens coach Kristian Woolf accused his team of taking their foot off the gas after they struggled to overcome injury-hit 12-man Leeds in the third round of the Betfred Challenge Cup.
The Super League champions scored after two minutes and established a 20-6 lead after the dismissal of Leeds forward Zane Tetevano but still laboured to a 26-18 victory that edges them closer to ending their 13-year wait for a cup success.
“We’re in the hat and that’s all that counts,” Woolf said. “I wouldn’t put it down as our best performance but we found a way to win.
“A couple of times we thought we had it won but took our foot off a little bit and all of a sudden the game was back on.
“We looked a little bit flustered in the first half. We really needed half-time and I thought our approach after half-time was good.”
Woolf says he was disappointed referee Ben Thaler declined to refer a claim for a try by hooker James Roby after 15 minutes to the video official.
“It was a try,” he said. “When you have access to those sort of things to make sure if there’s any doubt, it’s there to be used. Those things can have a really big impact.”
Saints lost forwards Matty Lees and Sione Mata’utia with ankle and head injuries within the first 12 minutes but that gave new signing Agnatius Paasi an early opportunity to shine and he grabbed it in style to produce a man-of-the-match performance on his home debut.
Woolf said: “I thought he was outstanding. He really showed his worth today. He’s got a great carry and a skill set he’s not shown and what I really like is that he backs it up with some really aggressive defence.
“I’ve got to give our forwards some credit, some of them played really big minutes.”
Leeds coach Richard Agar was forced to field a patched-up team after skipper Luke Gale joined the injury list with a broken thumb that left winger Tom Briscoe as the only first-choice back.
He fielded an unlikely-looking half-back pairing of forwards Rhys Martin and Cameron Smith and handed debuts to 17-year-old Morgan Gannon and Fijian prop King Vuniyayawa, who played barely five minutes before being concussed.
The cup holders trailed only 8-6 at half-time but faced an uphill task when Tetevano was sent off four minutes into the second half for a late and high tackle on Theo Fages.
However, Leeds hooker Brad Dwyer darted over for two tries in six minutes to set up a tense finish and Saints could only relax when Tom Makinson scored his second try 90 seconds from the end.
“I’m proud of the performance from start to finish,” Agar said. “Obviously we had some very difficult circumstances with team selection.
“I’ve been in the game a long time but I don’t think I’ve ever had one where every spine player and pretty much all the backs were ruled out.
“We had to adapt our game and come up with plan that would suit our personnel and rattle Saints a bit and I thought they delivered it to a tee.
“We came within a whisker, it was a magnificent effort.
“I really applaud our guys. They’re gutted they lost but I take my hats off to their efforts.”
Agar, who singled out acting captain Matt Prior for particular praise, said the club decided against strapping up Gale’s broken thumb and he is resigned to being without his captain for the next four to five weeks.