The three-peat versus the new kids on the block. Whatever happens next Saturday, history will be made at Old Trafford as two sides with records that could not be more contrasting compete to be crowned Super League champions. There are stories everywhere you look, but the one thing you suspect we are guaranteed is drama.
The fact both teams reached next Saturday’s final in eerily similar fashion also suggests a close contest. Much like on Thursday, St Helens faced stern opposition here in terms of spirit and endeavour. But when the chips were down, the quality of the favourites was simply too much for Leeds Rhinos to handle.
These two sides have contested some of the great Grand Finals, but there was little doubt about which of these juggernauts of the modern era would be advancing to yet another major final here. Leeds fought valiantly but, in the end, they were well beaten.
This St Helens side have dominated the competition for a prolonged period, but we will find out next weekend whether they have finally met their match. Catalans, the league leaders who have impressed so often in 2021, are now the only side standing between the Saints and a third consecutive league title as they bid for their first championship. The Saints, in contrast, are aiming for their 16th.
“We were beaten by a better team on the night,” the Leeds coach, Richard Agar, conceded. “Tonight will hurt but it’s one of those, we weren’t good enough to win the game and the score was a fair reflection.” It was an honest assessment from Agar.
Saints led 14-4 at half-time. Both teams received two yellow cards apiece but the moments when Leeds were a man light were far more crucial. St Helens broke the deadlock when Regan Grace touched down, and when the Rhinos’ Tom Briscoe was sent to the bin, the hosts capitalised when James Roby forced his way over the line.
Lachlan Coote’s three goals made it 14-0, and while Leeds responded when Richie Myler forced his way across the line shortly after Sione Mata’utia was sent to the bin, the prospect of a thrilling second half was on the cards, with the gap 10 points.
However, the quality of the reigning champions was all too evident after half-time. “Right from the start we showed our intent,” Kristian Woolf, the St Helens coach, said. “We had a real intensity about us and a real desire in how we wanted to play the game.”
That intensity was evident immediately after the restart. A quick short-side play sparked by Jonny Lomax led to Mark Percival crossing, putting the Saints ahead by 14. Then, on the hour mark, the semi-final was put beyond doubt when Kevin Naiqama scythed through from close range.
Leeds battled valiantly, but this was a game too far for them. Luke Briscoe’s try was the least their effort deserved but it would have been unfair on the Saints given their dominance if that had set up a grandstand finale.
They quickly responded with another try of their own courtesy of Percival’s second, before Grace added another try in the final moments to underline the Saints’ superiority.
Given how St Helens and Catalans have been the benchmark this season, perhaps this is the final the competition deserved.