THE last time Leeds Rhinos were humiliated in France it produced a reaction which led to a Grand Final victory.
Leeds don’t need the sort of change in attitude and application they came up with in 2011; they just have to re-find the form they were in three weeks ago.
The 46-16 thrashing by Catalans Dragons in Perpignan was Rhinos second successive defeat since their record-breaking Challenge Cup final win over Hull KR and the shadow of last year – when they lost all their four games after Wembley – is hanging over them.
It was Leeds’ worst defeat – and probably poorest performance – since Wigan won 50-8 at Headingley in June, 2012. Leeds – who had been on a seven-game winning run before losing to St Helens – lacked energy and attacking ideas and made things easy for Catalans with a remarkable number of basic errors. Rhinos now head the table only on points difference from Wigan and will need a massive improvement in their final two games to go into the semi-finals as league leaders.
Catalans’ terrible away form – only one win on their travels this year and that was at Wakefield – has cost them any chance of a semi-final spot, but they didn’t play like a team with nothing at stake. A big fuss was made before the game of Scott Dureau, Ian Henderson, Zeb Taia, Elliott Whitehead and Benjamin Garcia who are all leaving at the end of the season and were making their final home appearance. Sending them out on a high gave Catalans something to play for.
Rhinos have six players on their casualty list, but it was a stronger line-up than the one beaten by Saints eight days earlier. Zak Hardaker returned at full-back in place of Ashton Golding and – with Kallum Watkins still missing due to a damaged ankle – Carl Ablett switched from the second-row to centre, in place of Jimmy Keinhorst. He has a suspected fractured eye socket and was due to visit a specialist today.
The best-case scenario is he could be back in two weeks’ time, but if the injury is more severe it is likely to end his season.
Kylie Leuluai started at prop, swapping places with the benched Mitch Garbutt, Mitch Achurch came into the 13 in the second-row and Josh Walters was recalled among the substitutes.
There was enough strike power in that 17 to win the game, but they didn’t threaten in the first half and took 20 minutes of the second to gain any real go-forward, by which time the result was well beyond doubt.
Achurch had the only chance, if it could be called that, in the first half, with just seconds remaining. The second-rower found himself with some space on the right-wing from a pass by Ablett, who was one of the few Leeds men to emerge with credit.
Instead of using pace and size – both of which he has plenty of, he kicked in field and the ball ran dead.
That reluctance to back himself summed up a tentative team performance from Rhinos, who rarely got near their opponents’ line and spilled the ball far too often when they did.
There were several moments which illustrated what a poor night it was for Rhinos. For example; when Joel Moon seemed to have snuffed out a Catalans attack, but immediately knocked on and the French outfit scored from the resulting free-play: Scott Dureau kicked over Leeds’ line, Lilley tried to hack the ball dead, but missed, Tom Briscoe also failed to tidy up and Krisnan Inu capped a fine performance by touching down for his second try.
On attack, Leeds only came into life in the final quarter, scoring three tries after it looked like they might be nilled for the first time in 17 years. Danny McGuire stepped round Morgan Escare from Adam Cuthbertson’s offload for the visitors’ second try and in the next set Briscoe sent Hardaker racing away with Ablett in support, but the full-back’s pass sailed into touch.
On another occasion Catalans kicked from a free play and Ryan Hall scopped the ball into touch, not realising the scrum would be formed from there, rather than 30 metres downfield where the original knock-on occured.
With Todd Carney displaying some outstanding skills, Catalans led from the 17th minute, Thomas Bosc crossing and converting following an interception by Dureau. Carney’s kick then set-up a try for Inu, before the Aussie touched down himself.
That happened with Kevin Sinfield down in back play.
The skipper, on his 35th birthday, took a bang to his neck, but managed to play on, shifting from acting-half into the halves when Lilley came off the bench late in the opening period.
Lilley added some spark and enthusiasm, but he is a half-back rather than a hooker and it is tough for him having to play out of position.
Catalans ended the game as a contest soon after half-time. Initially they were denied when Briscoe tried to knock a kick dead, but Inu palmed it back and Jordan Sigismeau touched down.
Video referees Thierry Alibert and George Stokes decided it was no try, but – with everyone set for a 20-metre tap – called for a goal line drop out, from which Tony Gigot and Elliott Whitehead combined to send Bosc in at the corner.
Inu’s second try was followed immediately by a long-range score for Sigismeau and the conversion – one of five kicked by Dureau – made it 34-0.
Leeds avoided a whitewash when Hall got over from Moon’s pass, but they were caught napping soon afterwards. Walters was penalised for a high shot and Leeds were still grumbling about the penalty when Jeff Lima barged over from the tap.
McGuire’s try and the first of two Sinfield tries stemmed the tide, but then Jamie Peacock dropped the ball and Whitehead hacked on twice before touching down.
That try was converted by Lima, which – although he wasn’t announced as one of the departing players – suggests he may be on his way out. Even so, it was disrespectful to Leeds.
Rhinos did add another consolation on the final play, McGuire putting Moon over.
The penalty count finished 6-5 in Rhinos’ favour (5-3 in the first half).