The most encouraging aspect of Leeds Rhinos’ fine 44-10 win at Hull KR was the fact they can get much better.
Maybe not defensively. As has been the case for much of this season, Leeds were excellent when they didn’t have the ball.
Rhinos conceded after 16 minutes, but restricted Rovers to scraps – and only a handful of them – after that and the hosts’ other try came off a kick in the final moments.
Leeds did a terrific job shutting down halves Michael Dobson and Travis Burns and the pack comprehensively won the forward battle.
The champions’ kicking game, including a late 40-20 by Kevin Sinfield was excellent, but what can improve is what they do with ball in hand.
They missed a host of chances, particularly in the first half and though they did score some good tries, they will feel the victory could have been even more comprehensive.
That said, a 34-point margin at Craven Park is not to be sniffed at. Rob Burrow was outstanding, but it was a collective effort, with special mentions going to Zak Hardaker and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, alongside Ian Kirke and Mitch Achurch who came off the bench.
The first of Leeds’ tries came after only five minutes. Kallum Watkins knocked on from Sinfield’s kick to concede a scrum 20 metres from the Rovers line, but Luke George – making his Robins debut on loan from Huddersfield Giants – dropped the ball on the first play.
From that scrum Burrow, Sinfield and Danny McGuire worked the ball to Hardaker and Ryan Hall finished with typical power from his pass right by the flag.
Hardaker came close to adding a second soon afterwards, but he just failed to reach McGuire’s near grubber over the line and then Hall was tackled just short on the last.
Despite a strong wind at their backs Rovers had only two serious attacks and scored from one of them, Cory Paterson charging over from a pass by Dobson, who also added the extras to edge the home side ahead.
Leeds continued to make chances as Sinfield just failed to pick up when the defence failed to deal with McGuire’s kick and Achurch got a nice offload away, but Joel Moon couldn’t make the catch with the line open.
Paul McShane has benefited from longer game time in recent games and he made an impression straight after coming off the bench on the half hour.
Referee Robert Hicks angered the home support by awarding Leeds successive penalties and on the final play following the second McShane regathered after his grubber hit a defender and he slipped the ball on to Sinfield, whose pass was finished off on the burst by Brett Delaney, with the captain’s goal making it 10-6.
Leeds missed another chance almost immediately when Carl Ablett put Sinfield into a gap.
He was halted and then Jones-Buchanan went inside when he could have gone outside and Delaney dropped the pass.
Moon did brilliantly in the build-up when Leeds’ third try did come, after Sinfield and Achurch had handled.
He slipped, regained his feet, stepped past the cover and found Burrow.
The No 7 planted a lovely kick over the line and Hardaker ran on to touch down for a fine score, converted by Sinfield.
A minute before the interval Rhinos were awarded a penalty for an off the ball offence in front of the posts and – after some thought – Sinfield opted to tap it.
It was a gamble when two points looked assured, but the bold approach worked as McShane’s quick pass from dummy-half found Achurch and he plunged over, though Sinfield’s kick – after the hooter – hit a post.
Other than the try, Rovers only serious chance saw George kick ahead from a Leeds error near the home line, but Watkins got back to make the tackle, aided by Hall and Rhinos survived the next set under heavy pressure.
Moon was a long-awaited solution to the centre problem, which was caused by Keith Senior’s career-ending injury two years ago. The former Salford man has looked a class act all year, even in unfavourable conditions and his left-side combination with winger Hall has potential to be the best in the competition.
The Aussie highlighted that with a moment of outstanding class four minutes after the break when Ablett’s pass sent him clear with support – Hall and Burrow – on either side.
Instead, the centre stood up full-back Greg Eden up with a lovely dummy and step and went over himself. Sinfield’s conversion made the gap 20 points and was his 1,500th goal for Leeds.
Chris Clarkson got into space a few times, but also threw a couple of interceptions, including one when he went clear from Burrow’s pass, but Eden got in the way of the return.
That was one of the few opportunities created by either side in the second period, as Hull KR did lots of pressing, but Rhinos’ defence stood tall.
Rovers never looked remotely capable of getting back in the game and the result was put beyond any doubt with 11 minutes left after a wonderful kick by Sinfield forced a goal line drop out.
McShane played a one-two with Peacock before finding Clarkson.
He fed Ablett and the centre’s pass sent Watkins in at the corner, with Sinfield landing a magnificent touchline goal.
The skipper then landed a 40-20 and from that Ian Kirke capped a strong game by barging over from Kylie Leuluai’s offload for his first Super League try since one against Castleford two years ago today. Sinfield converted, but Omari Caro got to Eden’s kick to score a 77th-minute consolation for the hosts.
With 30 seconds left Rovers had the feed at a scrum and Paterson kicked deep, Watkins picked up, scythed past the first line of defence and then held off the chasers to complete a fine team effort with a dazzling individual try, which was converted by captain Sinfield after the hooter.
There was one blot for Rhinos, after 12 minutes, when Stevie Ward was hurt taking a tackle – to disgraceful cheers from an obnoxious section of Rovers’ so-called support – and had to be helped off.
He suffered a dislocated shoulder and could be out long term.
The home side also lost a player in the opening quarter, with loose-forward George Griffin limping off on the play before their first try.
The volume of abuse directed at referee Hicks at half-time – when Leeds were 6-2 ahead in the penalty count – was quite disturbing. The second half penalties went 8-2 in Rovers’ favour.