St Helens knock holders Leeds out of Challenge Cup
Former New Zealand international Zane Tetevano was sent off as Leeds relinquished their hold on the Betfred Challenge Cup despite a late rally by their 12 men.
The 30-year-old forward, who was playing only his third match for the Rhinos, was at the heart of a tremendous backs-to-wall effort by the patched-up holders, who restricted Super League champions St Helens to an 8-6 half-time lead in their third-round tie at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
But Tetevano’s dismissal, for a late and high tackle, four minutes into the second half turned the game the way of Saints, who went on to secure a 26-18 victory that takes them a step closer to ending their 13-year wait for cup success.
The Rhinos were superbly led by Australian prop Matt Prior, who took over the captaincy in the absence of skipper Luke Gale after he was ruled out with a broken thumb.
Coach Richard Agar field an unlikely-looking half-back pairing of forwards Cameron Smith and Rhys Martin and, with second rower Bodene Thompson sidelined with a rib injury, he handed debuts to 17-year-old academy product Morgan Gannon and Fijian forward King Vuniyayawa from the bench.
However, Vuniyayawa’s contribution lasted barely five minutes after he was crunched by a rampaging Agnatius Paasi and needed oxygen before having to leave the field.
Paasi’s powerful runs were the highlight of a low-key performance by St Helens, who had full-back Lachlan Coote playing his first game of the season but lost forwards Sione Mata’utia and Matty Lees with head and ankle injuries respectively inside the first 12 minutes.
It all made for a scrappy game, with Saints putting themselves under pressure with a series of fundamental errors in the face of some tremendous defence led by Rhinos front rowers Prior and Mikolaj Oledzki.
They made the ideal start, with winger Tom Makinson forcing his way past full-back Jack Broadbent for the opening try after only two minutes but Oledzki brought the visitors level after 10 minutes after crashing through the Saints defence.
Saints always looked more likely to score but lacked composure at crucial times.
Skipper James Roby and Paasi were both held up over the line and Saints ought to have made more of second rower James Bentley’s break which petered out.
The only other points of the first half came from a penalty by Makinson, which was a clear sign of respect from the champions.
Trailing 8-6 at the break, the holders were dealt a mortal blow when Tetevano was shown a red card for his ugly challenge on scrum-half Theo Fages.
Makinson kicked the subsequent penalty and Saints made the extra man count by working left winger Regan Grace over for their second try two minutes later.
As the home side piled on the pressure, Makinson raced clear down the wing only to put a foot on the line and Roby had another try disallowed by the video referee before Jonny Lomax’s cut-out pass enabled Grace to score his second try.
Makinson’s fourth goal made it 20-6 and looked to have sealed the win but a darting Brad Dwyer had other ideas as the replacement hooker forced his way over for two tries in six minutes from dummy half.
Martin added both conversions to cut the deficit to two points but Saints finally clinched the win when a break 20 metres from his own line by Grace created the position for Kevin Naiqama to get Makinson over for their fourth try 90 seconds from the end.