13th November 2020, 22:14 | super_league
Catalans Dragons are 80 minutes away from a maiden Betfred Super League Grand Final after defeating a battered Leeds Rhinos 26-14 in a brutal sudden-death tie at Warrington.
Defending champions St Helens now stand in the way of Steve McNamara's French side in next Friday's semi-final after the Dragons held off a battling fightback from the injury-hit Rhinos.
Former Wigan full-back Sam Tomkins was the architect of an early onslaught that enabled the Catalans to establish an 18-0 lead but they were forced to show their defensive mettle to hold onto their hard-won gains.
If the Dragons are to realise their dream, it will mean another two trips to England but, after playing only three matches at home since the resumption of the season in August, that will not worry a delighted McNamara.
It was, however, an excruciating experience for Leeds head coach Richard Agar, who was forced to watch the game on television from his home after self-isolating due to Covid-19 protocols.
With assistant coach Jamie Jones-Buchanan similarly confined, James Webster and Sean Long were in charge while Agar sent messages down a hotline to director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
And it would have been a painful watch as the Challenge Cup winners lost both front row forwards Ava Seumanufagai and Mikolaj Oledzki with head injuries before half-time.
The Dragons, on the other hand, looked full of energy for most of the game, not surprisingly after playing just one game in the last five weeks, and they made a fairytale start.
Tomkins had defenders grasping at thin air when he scooted away from dummy half inside his own 20-metre area and his former Wigan team-mate Tom Davies raced up in support to finish off the move with his 13th try of the season.
The England international then put in a neat grubber kick for centre Samisoni Langi to double the lead after seven minutes to leave the Rhinos shell-shocked.
The Yorkshiremen created a similar number of early chances but could not find their finishing touches and when forward Matt Prior finally managed to get over the line, his try was disallowed for an obstruction.
The missed chances began to look increasingly costly when towering centre Israel Folau leapt into the air to gather Tomkins' high kick and used his immense strength to force the ball over the line for the Dragons' third try.
James Maloney kicked his third conversion to make it 18-0 but Leeds skipper Luke Gale handled twice in a cleverly-worked counter-attacking move that enabled substitute Alex Sutcliffe to score his first try of the season, which Gale converted to make it 18-6 at the break.
The Dragons relinquished an identical lead against Salford in their previous match and doubt would have begun to seep in when Konrad Hurrell switched the point of attack and Prior got centre Liam Sutcliffe over for Leeds' second try seven minutes into the second half.
As the ferocious tackles continued to rain down, Catalans sailed close to the wind and hooker Michael McIlorum was fortunate to avoid any punishment for a hit on his opposite number Brad Dwyer, who was left bloodied but unbowed.
Prior led from the front as the Rhinos pounded away at the Catalans line but it looked a hopeless cause when winger David Mead picked off a pass from Leeds stand-off Robert Lui to go in for his side's fourth try.
The Rhinos kept themselves in contention with a 67th-minute try from Hurrell but Rhyse Martin was wide with the conversion attempt and Maloney put two scores between the sides with a penalty.
Result: Catalans Dragons 26-14 Leeds Rhinos