St Helens 24 Leeds Rhinos 12
History was made at an emotionally fraught Old Trafford as St Helens claimed an unprecedented fourth successive Grand Final victory, etching themselves into the realms of sporting greatness.
Never before had any team won more than three consecutive Super League titles – which Leeds achieved between 2007 and 2009, before Saints did likewise in the past three years – but after this success Kristian Woolf’s ‘Immortals’ reached new heights.
“Stand up for the champions” chanted the St Helens supporters in the Stretford End, safe in the knowledge that the Super League trophy will stay under lock and key in their club’s trophy cabinet for another year at least.
Saints have been champions for more than 1,000 days now and this latest title ensured they will go down as one of the greatest sides in the 127-year history of the game.
“They’re an outstanding group of men and deserve to be known as the best team of the Super League era – there is no doubt about that,” said outgoing head coach Woolf.
“You can’t compare eras but you can compare results and success and the bond that this group have got – that desire to not let each other down – is probably the best I’ve seen. It’s a fantastic achievement.”
Expertly guided around the park by England playmakers Jonny Lomax and Jack Welsby in front of a crowd of 60,783, this was a deserved victory for Saints, whose Australian head coach will now head home to take up a coaching role at new NRL outfit the Dolphins.
Woolf has performed an outstanding job during his three seasons at the helm but you had to sympathise with his opposite number and compatriot Rohan Smith.
Smith has worked wonders since arriving at Headingley in May when the Rhinos were on their knees, but this was a game too far.
“I’m really proud of the players and they journey that we’ve been on,” said Smith. “We had a good crack but we got beaten by the better team. There is pain and sorrow, but it’s really a time to acknowledge the greatness of this St Helens side.”
Leeds led early on when Lomax – the Harry Sunderland Trophy winner as man of the match – showed some delightful footwork to create the space to send prop Matty Lees over the line from close range for the fastest-ever Grand Final.
Tommy Makinson added the conversion to make it 6-0 but Leeds, buoyed by the inclusion of fit-again winger Ash Handley but missing Aidan Sezer, Harry Newman, David Fusitu’a and Morgan Gannon, gradually steadied themselves.
Blake Austin booted a 40-20 – the tactical manoeuvre which so often leads to a try – but the period of pressure Leeds fashioned came to nothing after Rhyse Martin spilled the ball close to St Helens’ line.
Moments later, Saints had their second try when Welsby’s perfectly-weighted short grubber kick invited homegrown full-back Jon Bennison, 19, to dive on the ball.
Referee Liam Moore awarded an on-field decision of try before video referee Ben Thaler confirmed it was a legitimate score.
With Makinson garnishing Bennison’s try with a fine touchline conversion, Saints were 12-0 up, if not necessarily in complete control.
Leeds struggled to make any headway in attack and a dangerous tackle by Martin on Lomax gave the champions a penalty which Makinson sent wide of the posts.
As the interval approached, though, Lomax made a vital intervention to deny Richie Myler just short of the line before more obstinate defending kept out Leeds hooker Kruise Leeming.
Yet the Rhinos kept probing and were not to be denied on the stroke of half-time when Cameron Smith – deputising for Sezer at stand-off – expertly found Leeming and he squeezed over from close range before Martin’s conversion cut Saints’ lead to six points.
That gave the men from Headingley a major fillip heading into the break and left the match finely poised as the second half began.
But the Rhinos’ discipline threatened to cost them again in the 42nd minute when Austin was penalised for a high tackle on Makinson.
Once again, Saints advanced menacingly deep into Leeds territory and, after a period spent battering their opponents’ line, they soon had a third try.
Tonga centre Konrad Hurrell, who spent the past three seasons at Leeds, collected a short pass from Welsby and showed brute force to power through four Rhinos defenders from close range and ground the ball in front of the Stretford End.
Makinson added the conversion once again to restore St Helens’ 12-point advantage and edge them closer to the history books.
With Welsby and Lomax dovetailing beautifully at half-back, Saints always gave the inescapable impression they could move through the gears when the opportunities arose.
Leeds, despite their undeniable spirit, spurned another opportunity when Martin knocked on again close to their opponents’ line.
Indeed, it was Saints who scored again shortly before the hour when England centre Mark Percival pounced on another deft Welsby grubber kick and Makinson’s conversion made it 24-6.
Leeds refused to give up and hit back through Martin’s late converted try in the right corner but it was St Helens’ night and season. Again.