Our Saints Women were 12 minutes away from joining their male colleagues at the University of Bolton Stadium for the Final of the Women's Challenge Cup only for Leeds Rhinos to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In front of a large crowd close to 750, the Saints started the brightest putting the Rhino’s under pressure. A penalty for a ball steal allowed Beth Stott to kick the Saints into Rhinos territory, but a Zoe Harris knock on relieved the pressure.
The Rhinos went down field and on the last Rebecca Avenell allowed a high ball to bounce, but watched it run dead in goal. She raced back to the 20 metre line to restart but was blatantly tackled in doing so.
The game continued to be nip and tuck, but the heavier Saints tackling was producing numerous errors from the Rhinos. A quick play the ball from Sarah Lovejoy allowed Jodi Cunningham to jump out of dummy half running to the right corner. On the last a Harris chip was easily dealt with when a grubber may have yielded a repeat set.
But coming up to quarter time the Saints took the lead through skipper Cunningham. A penalty for a head high tackle was dispatched to touch by Stott. From the tap Claire Mullaney charged deep into the Rhinos defensive line, but crucially played the ball quickly from which Cunningham darted over the line. Stott converted and the Saints were six to the good.
Poor handling continued to give the Rhinos good field position, but the vastly improved Saints defensive unit easily kept them at bay.
On 25 minutes the Saints were denied a try as a Lovejoy offload destined for the barnstorming Mullaney close to the line was tapped back by a Rhino and the chance was lost.
Five minutes later and Stott increased the lead to eight with a penalty for ball stealing as Mullaney was again denied a score this time illegally over the line.
Unfortunately a last tackle grubber was fumbled by Rebecca Rotherham and three tackles later the Rhinos prop, Shannon Lacey to score down the left.
The Saints started the second half with renewed purpose and took the game to the Rhinos. Stott knocked on with the line at her mercy after Mullaney was stopped short.
The Saints were on top now with the visitors gasping for breath and struggling to contain the running threat of Emily Rudge down the left channel. She was stopped short and in an effort to slow the Saints down the Rhinos flopped on in the tackle resulting in a sin-binning.
Stott converted the penalty to push the gap out to six again.
The Saints were rampant now, but just lacked a little patience and finesse to put the finishing touch to their pressure. A Channy Crowl run down the left ended with a Beth Stott pass to touch looking for Leah Burke on the wing.
Three penalties on the spin saw the Saints camped on the Leeds line. In hindsight a penalty giving a two score lead may just have taken the wind out of the tiring visitor’s sails, but you can’t blame the Saints in going for the kill and running it. Unfortunately the pass from Cunningham to Darcy Stott to go in under the posts was slightly behind and was put down.
The turning point came minutes later as Vicky Whitfield offloaded to a Rhino after another bullocking run. They gleefully accepted the gift and five tackle later levelled the scores with a grubbered try in the corner and a touchline conversion.
After being in charge for so long the Saints could have been forgiven for letting their heads drop, but they didn’t again driving deep into the Rhinos half.
With 7 minutes to go on the last Beth Stott tried a speculative drop goal but without really setting herself the ball skewed wide towards the corner.
Great reactions from the Burke sisters tackled the winger on her line, but from the play the ball the gap left down the wing was cruelly, but expertly exploited by the Rhinos full back who jinked her way through then beat Rotherham on a 90 metre run to the line.
Try as they might, and another 30 metre Rudge run saw her again stopped short, the Saints just couldn’t get over the line and the whistle blew.
Scoreboards don’t lie, but the Saints deserved more from this game after dominating for large periods.
St Helens Women’s Team: Rebecca Rotherham; Rebecca Avenell, Naomi Williams, Rhianna Burke, Leah Burke; Zoe Harris, Beth Stott; Sarah Lovejoy, Jodie Cunningham (C), Dawn Taylor, Emily Rudge, Pip Birchall, Channy Crowl.
Interchanges: Danni Bush, Darcy Stott, Vicky Whitfield, Claire Mullaney.
Tries: Jodie Cunningham (9).
Goals: Beth Stott 3 from 3.
Leeds Rhinos Women’s Team: Caitlin Beevers; Fran Goldthorpe, Sophie Robinson, Chloe Kerrigan, Sophie Nuttall; Hannah Butcher, Courtney Hill; Amy Johnson, Tasha Gaines, Shannon Lacey, Charlotte Booth, Elle Frain, Aimee Staveley.
Interchanges: Danika Prum, Danielle Anderson, Ellie Oldroyd, Keara Bennett.
Tries: Shannon Lacey (33), Fran Goldthorpe (68), Caitlin Beevers (73).
Goals: Courtney Hill 2 from 3.
Half Time: 8-4
Full Time: Saints 10-16