IF OMENS count for anything, Leeds Rhinos’ win in Perpignan may not turn out to be a good thing, but in its own right it was an outstanding two points in an excellent contest.
Rhinos have lost away to Catalans Dragons four times: in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012. One other thing those seasons have in common is on each occasion Leeds went on to win the Grand Final.
They also lifted the title after victory in the south of France, in 2008 and 2011, when they won there in an elimination play-off and perhaps this year will see a repeat of that.
It’s too early to mention anybody as potential champions and it went drastically wrong for Rhinos in the league last year from a similar position, but at the moment Leeds look like a team with real potential.
Saturday’s 38-22 success, their fourth in as many visits to Catalans, was an outstanding effort, considering they trailed 22-10 with 53 minutes gone.
It also lifted them above St Helens into top spot in First Utility Super League and opened a four-point gap on third place.
That is crucial as the top-four after 23 rounds will be rewarded with four home games in the Super-8s and points gained now carry over into that second stage of the season, so Leeds are in good shape.
When Catalans, whose form is shaky, but were previously unbeaten at home, raced into their 10-point lead Leeds weren’t so much shooting themselves in the foot as hacking it off with a large axe, but once Rhinos build some momentum they are hard to halt.
Errors and penalties starved them of ball immediately after the break and tries by Elliott Whitehead, Eloi Pelissier and Damien Cardace, plus a couple of Scott Dureau goals, seemed to put Dragons, who had trailed 10-6 at half-time, well in command. Leeds have offloaded more times than any other side in Super League this year. When it works – for example Adam Cuthbertson to Zak Hardaker, who put Carl Ablett over for the opening try after just six minutes – it is a real weapon.
But Rhinos are still overdoing things at times. Cardace’s try came after an unnecessary blind offload by Kallum Watkins, which Zeb Taia pounced on to set up a clinical counter-attack.
After the game Rhinos coach Brian McDermott admitted even he was concerned at that stage, but what followed was remarkable as the visitors ran in 28 unanswered points – and had what seemed like a fair touchdown ruled out – in the final 27 minutes.
From the restart after Cardace’s try, Danny McGuire, Joel Moon, Brad Singleton and Ablett combined to shove Jeff Lima into touch. Singleton made his first start of the season and again had a big impact. His fourth try in seven games was a close-range barge over from acting-half Rob Burrow’s pass following the scrum.
Hardaker made a brilliant catch of Catalans’ short restart and then Burrow, Ablett, Burrow again, Moon, Ryan Hall and Moon again combined down the left in a sweeping move, finished off by McGuire for his 19th try in matches against Dragons and his 247th Leeds touchdown.
Sutcliffe improved both to wipe out Catalans’ lead in the blink of an eye and increasingly-confident Rhinos were ahead soon afterwards.
Sutcliffe put in a decent kick on the last and it became an outstanding one when Willie Tonga slipped, the ball bounced over his head and the stand-off followed up to touch down.
There was no goal and Rhinos had a huge escape when Hall spilled Dureau’s bomb, Taia picked up and Ben Pomeroy was dragged down a blade of grass short, by Ash Handley, Jamie Peacock and Hardaker.
That was their last chance of getting back into the game. Leeds thought they might have sealed it when Burrow stabbed a kick over the line, there was a huge scramble and Cuthbertson touched down, but referee Richard Silverwood felt the Aussie had shoved a defender off the ball and – after a ridiculously long delay – video officials Thierry Alibert and Peter Brooke agreed.
Leeds, though, didn’t let that faze them. With four minutes remaining Burrow, who was magnificent off the bench, made a trademark dart and Watkins atoned for his earlier error by putting Leeds two scores clear.
Sutcliffe converted and Leeds immediately forced a drop-out, which Catalans kicked at a startled but alert Hardaker, who spotted a gap and cruised over to cap a fine personal display, Sutcliffe converting for the fifth time on the hooter.
One of the pre-season concerns about Rhinos was this is an aging team, without enough quality youngsters coming through.
The team in France included four players aged 22 or under and three of them scored, the odd one out being 19-year-old Handley, who did a solid job on the left-wing.
Stevie Ward bagged their second try, running a nice line from Hardaker’s pass six minutes before the interval.
He is 21 and had a stormer over the full 80. Singleton, 22 is making a determined play for Peacock’s No 10 jersey and Sutcliffe, 20, gained more valuable experience, filling in for injured skipper Kevin Sinfield.
All three youngsters had big games, as did Paul Aiton, before he was hurt in the first half.
Leeds also lost Jamie Jones-Buchanan before the interval, so staged their fightback with 15 available players.
Former Bradford man Whitehead was the stand-out for Dragons and he scored their first-half try, on 16 minutes.
Leeds’ defence was at fault then, but later in the half Hardaker made a timely interception, of Taia’s pass, to snuff out and attack close to the line and then Aiton’s brilliant try-saving tackle kept Whitehead out.
Singleton’s start came at the expense of Jones-Buchanan, who dropped to the bench.
The only change in personnel from the previous week’s win over Wigan was Mitch Achurch’s return from injury, in place of Andy Yates.
The penalty count finished 9-5 in Catalans’ favour (6-4 in the first half).
It was a good trip all-round for Rhinos, who travelled to and from France on the day, as their under-19s pipped Catalans’ youngsters 35-28 in the curtain-raiser.
Leeds led by 10 points twice, but Catalans levelled going into the closing stages, only for Jordan Lilley to edge Rhinos back in front with a remarkable 38-metre drop goal.
Ashton Golding then crossed in the next set and Lilley booted his fifth conversion, to go with a brace of tries.
Other touchdowns were scored by Billy McDermott, Ryan Jones – with a length of the field interception, which initially prevented a Catalans try – and George Milton.