Leeds Rhinos provide challenge but St Helens still the best in the women’s game

Twelve months ago, I watched my first women’s Rugby League match, and now I’m addicted! 

I much prefer it to the men’s game.

I thought the 2021 Challenge Cup Final had everything. The speed, the skills, the intensity, the offloading, the lack of penalties, and two incredible long-range tries blew me away. I was converted instantly. 

Saturday’s Challenge Cup Final was even better, as Leeds went toe to toe with an era-defining St Helens team and rocked them to their core. 

They came up short in the end but they showed in the first half that Saints are indeed human after all.

The big question at the start of the season remains unanswered. Can any team stop these magnificent St Helens women?

Saints last failed to win a match in October 2019, when the Rhinos beat them in the Super League play-offs.

They’ve been perfect this season in not conceding a single point in five Cup matches before Saturday.

Centres Carrie Roberts and Amy Hardcastle had scored 27 tries between them. England skipper Emily Rudge has barely played because of injury, but Paige Travis has more than filled the void. 

The mercurial Zoe Harris has played herself into the England squad. Hooker Tara Jones gets better and better. Vic Whitfield scatters defenders like ninepins. Jodie Cunningham is the reigning Woman of Steel. 

Underrated players like Becca Rotheram, Leah Burke, Beth Stott, Isabelle Rudge and Naomi Williams have all had great seasons.

How on earth were Leeds going to beat them? 

Well, coach Lois Forsell, a great player in her day, had a plan. The Rhinos stifled the strike players, they won the floor and they forced errors. They dominated the first 25 minutes. Saints contributed to their malaise with some poor last-tackle options.

The holders may have been faultless in their run to Elland Road, but Leeds had endured a semi-final of the highest intensity against York and were more match-hardened that their opponents.

And it showed in those early stages. 

Zoe Hornby may have played herself into the England squad and fully deserved to be named player of the match. Danielle Anderson carried the ball superbly. Shannon Lacey provided some dangerous second-phase offloads. 

Behind the scrum, Georgia Roche was magnificent in attack and defence. Hannah Butcher and Caitlin Beevers neutralised the threat of Hardcastle and Roberts. Beevers, returning from a hamstring injury, also did a great defensive job on Rotheram.

The key for Saints was minimising the damage. They could have found themselves 18-0 down but try-saving contributions from Burke on Anderson and Stott on Roche kept them in business. 

Saints slowly gained a footing. Whitfield was superb off the bench. Channy Crowl, whose incredible life story will be published by yours truly later this year, produced a momentum-shifting offload on halfway. You rarely see an offload rolled along the floor, but this brilliant forward produces so many and they come in all shapes and sizes.

A couple of tackles later, Burke was taking Harris’s pinpoint kick to touch down. It was 8-4 at half-time but, given how the game had gone, St Helens would have been relieved to have been just four points down. 

Saints’ class told in the second half, but they still needed a phenomenal try-saving tackle from Rotheram on the marauding Elychia Watson. Daughter of the one-time London Crusaders grafter Dave Rotheram, the fullback executes the basics so well and little gets past her.

A somewhat fortuitous try to Eboni Partington levelled the scores with half an hour left.

Roberts departed with an injury that left her on crutches, but Emily Rudge had come on earlier and, despite her lack of minutes this season, she looked like she’d never been away. Her impact was a major reason for her team’s change in fortunes after the break.

With Saints on top, Roche and Winfield-Hill were less effective, but Leeds still had a couple of chances. The elusive Fran Goldthorp seemed likely to score, but Travis and Jones snuffed out the danger.

And then came a huge moment. 

Courtney Winfield-Hill missed a very kickable goal. Instead of a Saints drop-out, Sam Hulme chased and touched it, giving Saints a very welcome tap on their 20. Within seconds, Cunningham was scoring the decisive try. Partington grabbed a second, and the glory belonged to Saints. 

Whether anyone can stop St Helens winning another treble this season remains to be seen. The Rhinos gave them a hell of a game, but Saints had too much in the end.

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