IT WASN’T exactly comfortable, but Leeds Rhinos’ 26-12 win at Castleford Tigers was probably more comprehensive than even they expected.
Tigers refused to go away and some magnificent goal line defence kept them in the game until the final quarter, but Rhinos were the better side throughout as, once again, some of their youngsters shone.
Leeds showed commendable faith in teenager Ash Handley by keeping him on the right wing, where he had played the previous two games in the absence of the injured Tom Briscoe.
They could have swapped him over and put Ryan Hall up against the fearsome Justin Carney, who went into the game as Super League’s leading try scorer, but the gamble paid off.
Handley should take a huge amount of confidence from a fine display. He had no scoring chances, but was safe under the high ball, making a couple of outstanding catches, defended strongly and contributed one spectacular try-saving tackle on Carney, who was below his best.
Leeds’ left-side grabbed the glory through, scoring three of their five tries. Hall came off the naughty step to bag a brace, which doubled his tally for the season and his centre Joel Moon crossed for the first time since last August.
For the third successive game, Rhinos were without skipper Kevin Sinfield, due to his hamstring problem.
He has started running in training and could be available for Monday’s visit of Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, but it will be tough on Liam Sutcliffe if or when he loses his place.
Sutcliffe has an opportunity to stake a claim for a regular spot as Leeds plan for life without Sinfield from the end of this season.
The 20-year-old is improving week-by-week and had another strong game, alongside stand-in captain Danny McGuire.
The No 6 may have lost some of his pace, he was again caught when seemingly en-route to the line, but his general play and game management are thriving at the moment.
Leeds’ pack, which was expected to be a weak link before the season began, again stood up strongly, despite the early loss of Carl Ablett with a hand injury.
Adam Cuthbertson impressed again and Paul Aiton is in good form. He is not the most spectacular of hookers, but rock-solid.
Stevie Ward scored a second try in as many games and must be among the Super League’s form second-rowers at the moment.
With Jamie Jones-Buchanan facing around a month out after damaging a hamstring in the win over Catalans a week ago, Andy Yates came on to the bench in the only change to Rhinos’ 17 and did a decent job, though with little game time.
Cas welcomed back Luke Dorn from injury, as well as forwards Nathan Massey and Matt Cook following suspension.
Ryan Boyle also returned, with Jordan Tansey, Ben Roberts, Junior Moors and Steve Crossley dropping out.
Tigers, on a three-match winning run at the Jungle, didn’t do themselves justice, despite the quality of some of their defensive efforts. They rarely troubled Leeds on attack, due to some poor errors and wrong options.
Their outstanding player was prop Andy Lynch, who played big minutes and had a towering game.
Captain Michael Shenton scored both their tries and was also impressive.
Leeds defended strongly throughout, including a 10-minute spell when Hall was in the sin-bin after receiving the first yellow card of his career.
He made a crucial tackle on Luke Gale, but held on too long and was binned for a professional foul, after just five minutes.
Rhinos should have gone ahead with him off the field. Cuthbertson and McGuire combined to supply Sutcliffe and he dipped a shoulder and weaved over the line, but dropped the ball.
Cas countered, only for Scott Moore to knock-on in midfield and from the scrum – as Hall prepared to return – Moon ran through a gap after Jamie Peacock, McGuire, Brad Singleton and McGuire again had handled.
Hall made amends for his sin-bin at the start of the second quarter, finishing well from a fine Cuthbertson offload.
That was one play after Carney had nailed McGuire, when he seemed set to score from handling by Singleton, Cuthbertson, and Moon.
Sutcliffe’s goal made it 10-0. Brett Delaney came on to replace the injured Ablett and got over the line soon afterwards, but was held up by Dorn.
Cas scored almost immediately when Liam Finn stabbed a kick over the line and Shenton ran through to touch down, Gale converting.
Leeds’ third try was a similar effort, on the final tackle, Sutcliffe doing the kicking and Stevie Ward getting the ball down.
Tigers had the first chance of the second half when Lynch surged up the middle with Adam Milner in support, but Watkins made a fine tackle to tie up the hooker and then Shenton was barged into touch by Sutcliffe.
Leeds thought they had gone further ahead when Cuthbertson went over from McGuire’s pass, but referee Ben Thaler said ‘no try’ and his video assistants agreed he had been held up. Carney then burst clear, with Milner in support, but Handley made the try-saving tackle and Cas lost possession when Moon put in a huge hit on Dorn.
Rhinos saw another chance go begging when Zak Hardaker went clear, but Carney saved Tigers with a superb tackle. When Singleton got over the line, but was held up, on 61 minutes, the question was, would all these missed chances came back to haunt Rhinos?
The answer was provided a couple of minutes later, after Cas conceded a penalty for Moore tackling Handley in mid-air. The kick took Leeds upfield, they moved the ball left and Hall had a walk-in from Moon’s pass after Peacock and McGuire had also handled.
Rhinos sealed the points on 67, Cuthbertson – who had another huge game – twisting over from acting-half Rob Burrow’s pass, Sutcliffe converting.
Cas thought they had got a try back after snaffling the short re-start, Finn putting Carney over, but Thaler handed the decision on and the touchdown was ruled out for an obstruction.
Tigers did score a consolation three minutes from time when Shenton went over off a long-range one-two with Carney and Gale added the extras, but that was too little, too late.
Referee Thaler had a good game. He could have awarded more penalties, particularly for offside, but let things flow. The penalty count was 3-1 in Tigers’ favour at half-time and finished 4-4.