St Helens 42 Leeds Rhinos 16

Friday 3rd June 2011
St Helens 42 Leeds Rhinos 16
Engage Super League
At: Stobart Stadium
Kick-off: 8-00 pm
Admission: £22; Programme: £3 (72 pages)
Attendance: 9062
Weather: warm and sunny
Duration (40): first-half: 44:15; second-half: 42:49

Off the top of my head, I’ve seen rugby league games at Sheffield (Owlerton Stadium and Bramall Lane during the early 1980s), Doncaster (Tatters Field), Leigh (Hilton Park) and Alfreton (Mansfield Marksman at North Street). I also think I went to Castleford’s Wheldon Road sometime during the early 1970s. The sport isn’t one I normally watch in the flesh tand only sometimes watch on Sky. Whether the Leigh or Mansfield game was my last one seen doesn’t matter as this trip to watch St Helens was my first rugby league experience for over 20 years regardless.

There were three games to chose from tonight – St Helens v Leeds, Crusaders v Warrington and Salford v Castleford – and I opted for the former as it was Sky’s live game.

This season St Helens are ground sharing at the Stobart Stadium, home of the Championship and soon to be Super League side Widnes Vikings. They vacated their long-standing Knowsley Road ground at the end of last season and will move to the 18,000 capacity ‘New St Helens Stadium’ at the start of 2012 season.

I’d been to the Stobart Stadium before, back in 2004 for football between Runcorn FC Halton and Stafford Rangers when it was named the ‘Halton Stadium’, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make a mess of finding the place second time round. I’ll blame a lack of signs coming off the Runcorn bridge and not having no map printed out!

The Stobart Stadium, which according to Wikipedia was opened in 1997 on the site of the former Naughton Park rugby league ground, is a 13,350 all-seater stadium. It now boasts stands on all four sides – main South Stand, East (home fans) and West (away fans) Stands behind the posts and North Stand where I sat in block A/B.

As far I could see no programmes were on sale outside the ground and I picked up a copy from a seller in the concourse beneath the North Stand.

Teams were read out twice and displayed on the electronic board. Once the players entered the field, they ran to the ends they were defending and the game quickly got underway. Presumably, unlike football, the toss for choice of ends must have taken place earlier.

Leeds Rhinos (wearing pink and navy blue hoops, navy blue shorts and pink socks) got the game underway attacking the West Stand in the first half. And they made a good start by taking a 4-0 lead with two goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield. However, St Helens (wearing their familiar home kit of all white with red trim) got themselves in front with a Jason Graham try and conversion by Jamie Foster. Half-time 6-4.

The game was certainly fast moving and I found it difficult to take my eyes off the pitch for fear of missing something. Each half of a rugby league game lasts 40 minutes with the ‘live clock’ stopping and starting during various breaks in play. I started my watch when the first half commenced and found that 44 minutes and 15 seconds elapsed during the first half – accounted for in part by two separate decision referrals to the ‘video referee’.

Another thing I noticed were the ‘interchanges’ where the 13 players in each team on the field could be replaced from a pool of 4 rolling replacements. A maximum of 12 interchanges are permitted.

St Helens extended their lead early in the second half – try by James Roby and conversion by Foster – and increased it further with another try from Francis Meli and another conversion from Foster. The home fans were happy and started to sing ‘When the Saints go marching in …’. It was now 18-4.

Nearly all the action was down my end. St Helens turned the outcome into a bit of a rout as further tries from Jonny Lomax under the posts, Scott Moore and Paul Wellens got the fans chanting ‘Easy!, Easy!’ Each was converted by inch-perfect Foster to make the score 36-4.

Every try and every goal was followed by a tannoy announcement that included naming the player’s sponsor. So every time Foster kicked a conversion there was more and more publicity for Impact Cleaning!

Leeds didn’t let their heads drop and restored a bit of respectability to the scoreline. Tries from Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Lee Smith were both converted by Sinfield and quickly 36-4 became 36-16.

Time was against Leeds and knew that time was almost up when Lee Gaskell was named Man of the Match’. And right on cue, Gaskell intercepted a Sinfield pass and ran over for St Helens’ seventh try, quickly followed by Foster’s seventh conversion and the sound of the hooter. The watch showed just 169 seconds of stoppages during a fats-moving and exciting second half.

One thing I pondered was this. – While football has the ‘92 club’, what is the rugby league equivalent? The ‘14 club’ of Enggage Super League grounds or the ‘35 club’ which also includes the grounds of the Co-operative Championship and Division One?