Rob Burrow scored a try in his testimonial game, but his half-back partner Danny McGuire grabbed the spotlight with four tries in a sparkling 66-0 demolition of Featherstone Rovers.
Burrow provided the crowd with the moment they wanted after just 12 minutes, in the set after McGuire had opened the scoring.
Kylie Leuluai, Burrow, McGuire and Zak Hardaker carved the defence open with pace and incisive passing down the left flank and Burrow – in trademark fashion – was in support on the inside to take the final ball and dash over unopposed from 20 metres out.
Skipper for the night Burrow was also involved in four other touchdowns, but McGuire’s performance lit up Headingley as his support play and speed left Rovers floundering.
The clash of the champions was a mis-match as Rovers – the Co-op Championship Grand Final winners – failed to get to grips with a Rhinos outfit playing a dazzling brand of attacking rugby.
Rovers battled bravely, as illustrated by some terrific defence to hold Paul McShane up over the line deep in the second half, when they trailed 54-0.
But they couldn’t get any go-forward when they had the ball and Leeds’ pace broke them down relentlessly as the hosts ran in 11 tries.
Rhinos would probably have preferred a tougher defensive test a fortnight out from the start of the season, but they did a strong job coping with the occasional attacks Rovers did mount and, irrespective of the opposition, this was an impressive performance.
Leeds defended like it really mattered, even late on and they kept their shape right until the end, despite various changes and the mounting scoreline.
Lee Smith dropped down Rhinos’ pecking order last year and had to watch the Grand Final from the sidelines, three years after his man of the match performance on the same stage.
He has apparently been ‘training the house down’ and was preferred to Ben Jones-Bishop on the right-wing, which illustrates the competition for places Leeds enjoy in the outside-backs.
Smith was excellent, apart from a couple of fumbles when he moved to full-back. As well as converting all 11 tries, he ran Rovers ragged, particularly out wide.
Recruit Richard Moore, one of the substitutes, hit the ball up strongly, building on his good start in the Boxing Day win over Wakefield.
Much sterner tests await, but he has the makings of a crowd favourite.
It took Rhinos 10 minutes to break Rovers down and they did it in first rate style, from their own 20.
McGuire, Brent Webb and Kallum Watkins worked the ball to Smith, who made good ground before supplying Watkins and he sent the stand-off over.
Rovers had been hanging on up to that point, Gareth Raynor pulling off a try-saving tackle on Smith before McGuire was held up over the line by Jon Grayshon and Tangi Ropati.
Burrow set up Leeds’ third score at the end of the opening quarter, bursting past two defenders before putting McGuire over.
On the half hour Smith beautifully-weight kick was collected by Watkins for the fourth try, soon followed by a long-range fifth.
Rovers couldn’t make any ground and they only had possession three time near Leeds’ line in the opening half, once from James Lockwood’s break, off an error and a forward pass.
The error followed a similar Leeds slip and was punished as Ryan Hall pounced on the loose ball, tore up the right wing, found Burrow in support and he sent Hardaker in – the centre celebrating his try against his former club with an elaborate swan dive.
The forward pass should have led to a Rovers try, but Tom Saxton dropped the ball on the line from Ian Hardman’s pass, after good work by Danny Grimshaw.
Good judges – former Rhinos Danny Buderus among them – are excited by the potential of Leeds’ 20-year-old hooker Liam Hood.
He has yet to play a Super League game and came off the bench last night, but he oozes quality and it’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t get significant senior game time this year.
Hood showed what he is all about to set up Rhinos’ final score of the opening period, just before the hooter, easily slicing Rovers open from acting-half. McGuire was in support to complete his hat-trick.
The one blot on Rhinos’ night was an injury to Hood, who was carried off 10 minutes from time after damaging his lower left leg.
Hardaker added his second try seven minutes after the break, brushing off Mufaro Mvududu after Weller Hauraki – a half-time replacement – had dumped the ball backwards.
The next two tries – back-to-back – typified Rhinos’ performance as pace, terrific support play and wonderful quick passing ripped Rovers to pieces.
First McGuire, Carl Ablett, Webb and Burrow handled before McGuire went over for a fourth time and then Burrow broke to send Webb clear and the speedy Hood finished off.
Remarkably, it took Hall until the 63rd minute to register his try, the winger leaping high to take acting-half McShane’s kick. McShane then spun over from acting-half to complete Leeds’ 11 try haul.
It’s good to see up and coming referees being given an opportunity to take charge of Super League teams on big stages. George Stokes did a decent job and he let the teams get on with things.
The penalties went 8-2 in Leeds’ favour, 5-0 after the break.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Smith, Watkins, Hardaker, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Bailey, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Ablett. Subs (all used) Hauraki, Hood, Griffin, Moore, Clarkson.
Featherstone Rovers: Hardman, Raynor, Smeaton, Ropati, Saxton, Kain, Finn, Lockwood, Kaye, Dickens, Grayshon, Spears, Dale. Subs (all used) Carr, Freer, Haley, Bostock, Grimshaw, Worthington, Bussey, Ormondroyd, Mvududu.
Referee: George Stokes (Wigan).