TWELVE-MAN LEEDS Rhinos put up a terrific battling display before slipping to a 13-12 home defeat by Super League leaders St Helens last night.
It was Rhinos’ third successive league defeat and a top-four finish will be a tall order now, but they were unlucky not to get something from a pulsating encounter.
Rhinos were reduced to 12 men after just 22 minutes when referee Richard Silverwood sent-off centre Joel Moon for a shoulder charge to the head of Mark Percival near the Saints line.
Shoulder charges are illegal as are tackles above the chest, so there couldn’t be much argument. Percival had to be helped off the field and didn’t return.
The red card stoked up an already noisy atmosphere and there was uproar a few minutes later when Paul Aiton was hit off the ball by Sia Soliola, who escaped – correctly on the merits of that incident – with only a warning and a penalty against him.
Particularly in the first half Saints’ plan was to slow Leeds down at the play-the-ball and they were fortunate not to receive a team warning for persistent offending, or possibly a yellow card.
The penalty count finished 9-6 in Leeds’ favour (8-5 in the opening 40).
Leeds have suffered some poor defeats this season, but this wasn’t one of them.
It was a big effort by the hosts, just six days after their Challenge Cup final triumph and playing a man short for three-quarters of the contest.
The led by 10 points going into the final quarter, but all their hard work eventually took its toll and Saints ground out a win which edged them closer to the league leaders’ shield, thanks to Lance Hohaia’s late drop goal.
Rhinos were without three members of their Wembley lineup, two of whom started against Castleford.
Danny McGuire failed to recover from the rib injury he suffered late in the game, so Liam Sutcliffe was promoted to the starting team at scrum-half and Robbie Ward – who hadn’t been named in the initial 19 – was drafted on to the bench.
Rob Burrow went off late in the game at Wembley due to a persistent groin problem and was also ruled out yesterday, so Aiton got a start.
Ian Kirke, a Cup final substitute, was the other player to drop out, because of a slight hamstring strain.
Ryan Bailey started in the front-row, swapping places with Kylie Leuluai, who was among the substitutes. Mitch Achurch and Brad Singleton were called up on the bench.
Aiton relished the start and had probably his finest game in blue and amber.
Sutcliffe also rose to the challenge, both going forward and with some important defence and Jamie Peacock was – as ever – a tower of strength in the pack.
It was a remarkably energetic effort by Rhinos considering the emotion of the previous week and also the fact Ward and Singleton didn’t get on.
It’s not often in the modern game both sides’ opening points come from a penalty goal, but that was the case in this one and it was an illustration of how much respect these sides have for each other.
Saints went ahead after four minutes through a Mark Percival goal. Jamie Jones-Buchanan knocked on in a tackle by Josh Jones and Anthony Laffranchi and when the ball came loose from Matt Dawson, referee Richard Silverwood ruled a steal by Brett Delaney.
Fierce defence from Aiton forced an error from Kyle Amor and after Bailey and Tom Briscoe had gone close, video referees Ben Thaler and Steve Ganson decided the ball was stolen when it came loose from Kallum Watkins’ grasp over the line.
Then in the resulting set Alex Walmsley was penalised for interference on Bailey and Sinfield kicked Leeds level after 11.
Only outstanding defensive work prevented Jamie Peacock and then Bailey getting over off fine work out of dummy-half by Aiton, but it was as Saints cleared their lines that Moon saw red.
Leeds scored 10 unanswered points between the dismissal and half-time. Sinfield landed his second kick, on 27 minutes, when James Roby was penalised for interference on Peacock.
The three later, in the set after the late tackle on Aiton, Brett Delaney confused the defence with a great run across the line and supplied Sutcliffe, who stepped off both feet to go over for a terrific touchdown.
Sinfield added the extras and made it 12-2 on the stroke of half-time after Lance Hohaia stole the ball from Sutcliffe.
Early in the second half a knock-on by a tired Jamie Jones-Buchanan put Leeds under pressure, but the same played made a stunning tackle to keep mark Flanagan out and then Ryan Hall and Leuluai forced Shannon McDonnell to knock-on as he tried to force his way over.
Rhinos’ first 40-20 of the season – landed by Sinfield – set up a spell of pressure for the hosts towards the end of the third quarter, but they couldn’t make it tell and Saints finally got over the line at the other end, with 18 minute left. Zak Hardaker, who had a superb game for Leeds, conceded a goal line drop out and from that Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook went over from Hohaia’s pass, though Jordan Turner missed the conversion attempt from just to the right of the posts.
With 11 minutes left Turner landed a 40-20 via Hardaker and Leeds cracked again from the scrum as Roby nipped through from acting-half close to the line, Tommy Makinson squaring the scores with the goal.
With six minutes left Hohaia kicked a long-range drop goal to edge Saints ahead and Rhinos’ chance of victory went when Silverwood controversially awarded a scrum to Saints inside their half a couple of minutes later.
Leeds were on the wrong end of some poor calls by the match officials.
Hull FC produced their best performance of the season to deny fierce rivals Hull KR a piece of history and put a major dent in their play-off hopes.
The Robins went into the contest on a wet night at the KC Stadium chasing a hat-trick of wins over the Black and Whites for the first time in the First Utility Super League era, but left smarting from a 28-0 defeat which leaves their top-eight aspirations hanging by a thread.
The Airlie Birds dominated a full-blooded first half and barely allowed Rovers into their 40, although they only had tries from Fetuli Talanoa and Setaimata Sa and two Jordan Rankin goals to show for their efforts.
Tom Lineham settled any nerves Hull had on 45 minutes and the result was beyond doubt when former Castleford Tigers player Jordan Thompson crashed over, with Lineham completing a resounding win with an interception try.