SLEEPY Leeds Rhinos had to come from behind for the second successive round as they continued their Wembley quest with an ultimately routine 40-20 win over Harlequins at Headingley Carnegie last night.
Rhinos – who trailed 10-0 early on in their previous Challenge Cup tie against Crusaders – looked as though they were expecting an easy evening, an impression which was reinforced when they took a rapid lead.
They then hit the snooze button, only waking up after Quins – without a win against top-flight opposition since March – had run in three tries to make it 14-6.
Leeds led by eight at half-time and extended that at the start of the second session, but there was a long period of stalemate before Rhinos made certain of their place in Monday’s quarter-final draw with a couple of late touchdowns.
Rhinos only hit top gear in flashes – particularly the 11 minutes before half-time when they ran in three tries – and this was another example of them grinding out a win, their sixth in succession.
They weren’t fluid, but a lot of credit for that has to got to Quins, who tackled resolutely and caused the hosts some problems with their kicking game.
Danny Buderus got plenty of game time and was highly effective at dummy-half. Once again Kevin Sinfield controlled matters and there was a big contribution from James Jones-Buchanan.
Ali Lauitiiti was among Rhinos’ try scorers, lighting up the opening period with a spectacular touchdown on his return from a two-month lay-off due to a calf injury.
Chris Clarkson and Ryan Bailey were also back in Leeds’ 17, with Jay Pitts, Weller Hauraki and Luke Burgess making way.
Rhinos’ night was marred six minutes minutes from time when veteran centre Keith Senior was helped off, after injuring a knee.
In only his second year as a professional, 19-year-old Zak Hardaker’s try-scoring ratio is phenomenal – 25 touchdowns in 16 games before last night.
It took him just three minutes to take his tally for Rhinos to four in three matches, diving over from Brett Delaney’s pass after Sinfield and Lee Smith had handled across the line.
Sinfield landed a wonderful touchline conversion and Hardaker would probably have added to his tally moments later, supporting a Delaney break, but the pass from Clarkson which sent the centre away was forward.
Rather than being at least 10-0 ahead, Rhinos’ lead was cut to just two in the next set when Chris Melling touched down from David Howell’s offload.
And Quins went ahead on 21 minutes with a soft try from close range, Luke Dorn – whose knock-on had led to Leeds’ first try – taking acting-half Chad Randall’s pass, throwing a dummy and crawling over the line.
Former Rhinos academy half-back Luke Gale again failed to convert, but was on target just four minutes later.
Gale supplied Tony Clubb, who was halted by Ryan Hall, but managed to get a pass away to Randall and he in turn found Mark Calderwood, the ex-Leeds flier cutting past Senior.
After their try, Leeds’ next possession in the Quins 20 came 26 minutes later, again off a mistake, this time by Melling.
Ian Kirke blasted to the line and on the next play Buderus and Sinfield worked the ball to Jones-Buchanan, who powered straight over the top of Gale.
That was the start of a spree which produced 26 points before Quins next troubled the scoreboard operator.
On 36 minutes Sinfield landed a long-range touch-finder, which proved as good as a 40-20 when Quins knocked-on at the scrum base.
In the subsequent set Buderus, Rob Burrow and Carl Ablett handled before Delaney finished the move, showing too much strength for Howell.
Sinfield converted and added the extras again after Rhinos scored a lovely try in the set from the re-start.
Bailey, Buderus and Sinfield all handled before Lauitiiti got into space on the right. His dazzling basketball-style pass sent Hardaker streaking away before the winger returned the ball for the big Samoan to touchdown.
Bailey – who hasn’t scored a try since July 2007 – was held up over the Quins line at the start of the second half, but another prop added their next touchdown on 52 minutes, Kylie Leuluai proving unstoppable from five metres out off Buderus’ pass.
That capped a fine game by the front-rower, who is in the best form of his five-season Rhinos career. The next try didn’t come until 14 minutes from time, Hall stretching over from Burrow’s long pass.
Quins scored a bizarre consolation nine minutes from time, when Ben Bolger profited from a wild offload by Sinfield, with Gale converting.
Leeds had the last laugh on 77 minutes, when Clarkson out-paced the defence from a scrum-base on half-way.
Sinfield converted and completed the scoring with a penalty after the hooter had sounded.
Referee Ben Thaler awarded only four penalties in February’s league meeting between the two sides, which Quins won.
This time there were 12, nine of them to Leeds. All those came in the second half, Thaler – who had record-holder James Child as one of his touch judges – taking until the 42nd minute to get off the mark.
Leeds Rhinos: Smith, Hardaker, Delaney, Senior, Hall, Sinfield, Burrow, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Clarkson, Ablett. Subs (all used) Lauitiiti, Bailey, Kirke, McShane.
Harlequins: Dorn, Melling, Howell, Clubb, Calderwood, Gale, C Bailey, Temata, Randall, Ward, Burnett, Wilkes, Krasniqi. Subs (all used) Ambler, Bolger, Ellis, Williams.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).
* Holders Warrington Wolves stormed into the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup with a ruthless 112-0 demolition of hapless Swinton Lions.
Lee Briers and Joel Monaghan stole the show, with the former plundering 44 points with three tries and 16 goals, while Monaghan pounced for four tries as Warrington ruthlessly exposed the gulf between Super League and Championship Two.
Garreth Carvell and Chris Riley also scored hat-tricks in Wolves’ biggest cup win.
In the night’s other tie, Hull KR defeated top flight rivals Salford City Reds 25-0 at the Willows.
Blake Green, Ben Cockayne, Kris Welham and Jake Webster with the Robins’ tries.