St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham hailed his side’s resilience after they ground out a 6-4 win over Leeds in the opening match of the 2017 Super League season.
Leeds centre Joel Moon had the distinction of scoring the first try of the season as the Rhinos deservedly led 4-0 at the break but Saints edged a hard-fought second half to claim the spoils.
“It wasn’t pretty at times but we worked exceptionally hard,” Cunningham said. “The resilience of the players is second to none.”
Both teams looked distinctly rusty but Saints deserve much credit for the way they coped without injured halfback Matty Smith and overcame the loss of England fullback Jonny Lomax with a head injury just before half-time.
Cunningham says Lomax would be fit for his club’s next match in a fortnight’s time and he was encouraged with the debut of 20-year-old Danny Richardson, who played alongside tryscorer Theo Fages in place of broken-leg victim Smith.
“I was pleased with both the halves,” he said. “The game plan we gave them was really simple and they stuck to it. Danny was great and Theo was brilliant. He took his try well and I thought his defence was outstanding.”
Cunningham defended his decision to start the game with new signing Tommy Lee, with England hooker James Roby and prop Alex Walmsley on the bench.
“I thought the combination of bringing big Al and Roby on changed the complexion of the game,” he said.
The defining moment of the match came on 47 minutes when Leeds’ England centre Kallum Watkins split the Saints defence to get Liam Sutcliffe charging for the line only to be denied by a magnificent flying tackle by Tommy Makinson.
“He was fantastic,” Cunningham said. “It was game-changing but there was a lot of game-changing tonight.. Leeds threw a lot at us in the last 15 minutes.”
Leeds were also indebted to an outstanding defensive effort from fullback Ashton Golding, who played a key role in turning three St Helens players onto their backs over the tryline.
“He was outstanding tonight, catching some high kicks, and some of those try-savers are everything you want of a full-back,” Leeds coach Brian McDermott said.