Twelve-man Leeds Rhinos pulled off one of their most remarkable wins to end Catalan Dragons’ unbeaten home record
Rhinos had Ryan Bailey sent-off early in the second half and trailed 12-10 going into the final quarter, before stunning Dragons with 17 unanswered points to triumph 27-12.
It was a display of astonishing character by the champions, who defended magnificently in the opening period and counter-attacked brilliantly late on, after being under non-stop pressure.
Skipper Kevin Sinfield reached yet another milestone as he landed seven goals and a drop goal and he had excellent support all round.
Joel Moon, Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall were outstanding in the backs and the entire pack stood up after the dismissal, in particular Stevie Ward.
The win came in the face of a 16-7 penalty count against them by referee Ben Thaler.
The Catalan crowd create an atmosphere that’s as noisy and hostile as any in the league and it means they seem to get more than their fair share of 50-50 decisions from referees there.
The penalty count was a fairly ridiculous 10-3 in Dragons’ favour at half-time and blew out to 15-3, before Thaler awarded the five of the last six to the visitors.
That’s from an official who awarded the penalties 15-7 against Leeds in last season’s play-off eliminator and isn’t known for blowing the pea out of his whistle.
The game was played in conditions more like the Lake District than the south of France.
It was chilly and torrential rain fell for most of the day until easing just before kick-off, making the pitch boggy under foot.
Rhinos nilled the hosts to go in at the break 10 points ahead. Under that sort of pressure they needed to hang on to the ball when they had it and did, conceding just one knock-on – by Watkins after 27 minutes – in the opening period.
The danger for Rhinos was that they were having to do too much tackling and once Bailey had received his marching orders the home side looked like taking control.
Leeds were also hampered by the loss to injury of in-form second-row Brett Delaney, who took no part in the second half, when his steely defence would have been influential, though Richard Moore remained on the bench as an unused sub.
Dragons scored two tries in five minutes after Bailey’s departure to edge ahead, but Leeds levelled on the hour, went back in front with 11 minutes left and then ran away with it.
With Kylie Leuluai out due to a groin injury, Paul McShane was recalled on the bench in the only personnel change to the side which drew with Bradford Bulls four days earlier.
Brad Singleton, who had been recalled from his dual-registration stint at Hunslet Hawks, was one of the travelling reserves, along with Chris Clarkson.
Bailey switched to prop to replace Leuluai and Ward stepped up off the bench to take over at loose-forward.
Ward played a crucial role in Leeds’ first try, after seven minutes.
His pass found Moon who finished sweetly on an arc to the corner after Carl Ablett, Jamie Peacock and Danny McGuire had also handled.
That proved to be Rhinos’ one serious try-scoring opportunity of the opening period and came in the set from Leeds’ first penalty.
Catalan got the next three in succession in front of Rhinos’ posts – for fouls by Bailey, Jamie Peacock and Jamie Jones-Buchanan laying on.
In between those, Olivier Elima played the ball and then shoved the marker – in a copy of the incident which saw Peacock penalised and what would have been a winning drop goal in the derby with Bradford ruled out – but Thaler allowed play to continue.
That early flurry led to Joe Vickery scrambling a kick by Thomas Bosc dead to concede a goal line drop out, but Rhinos survived the spell of pressure in good style.
The visitors had some rare good fortune at the end of the opening quarter when Peacock appeared to lose the ball as he tried to offload, but Thaler ruled it had been reefed out and Sinfield struck a 40-metre penalty to go with his earlier touchline conversion.
Catalan’s first real chance came on 31 minutes when Damien Blanch’s pass put Bosc into space in midfield, but McGuire made an ankle tap and then snuffed out the attack moments later with a smart interception.
Bosc also went close after another spate of penalties, but some tremendous scrambling defence kept the visitors’ line intact and they extended their lead four minutes before the break through Sinfield’s second penalty goal.
Rhinos were penalised twice in the opening 40 seconds after half-time – taking the count to 12-3 – and Thaler placed them on a team warning.
You could have got long odds then on Rhinos playing the full game with 13 players, but when the inevitable card came out it was red rather than yellow.
Bailey hit Bosc late, sparking an angry reaction from the home players – and after speaking to his touch judges – Thaler sent the Leeds front-rower off, with 32 minutes still to play. In the set from the penalty Leon Pryce forced his way over the line and though it looked like he had knocked on, video referee Ian Smith awarded the try and Bosc added the goal to cut the lead to four points. The stand-off, who made an impressive recovery from Bailey’s tackle, then cut through the defence for Dragons’ second try, which he also converted. Presumably the red card nullified the team warning, because Thaler put Leeds on another one on 57 minutes after Catalan’s seventh successive penalty and their fifth of the half, though they only received one more.
On the hour Leeds got into Dragons’ territory for the first time in the half and the attack brought them a penalty, though it was awarded by the video referee rather than Thaler.
Sinfield landed his fourth goal, taking his career points tally to 3,516 – eclipsing Mick Nanyn and making him rugby league’s seventh most prolific player of all time.
That levelled the scores and then with 11 minutes left Jones-Buchanan was tackled just short and McShane picked up, threw a dummy and dived through a huge gap and Sinfield converted to make it 18-12.
Sinfield landed a smart drop goal in the next set and then –remarkably – Jones-Buchanan crawled over for a try which was converted by Sinfield.
Sinfield then added two more late penalties to seal an amazing win on a rain-hit night in the south of France.