LEEDS RHINOS came from behind to complete an unbeaten pre-season with a 42-14 trial-game win at Championship outfit Doncaster.
Leeds trailed twice in the first half, when they weren’t on their game, but stepped up strongly after the break as stand-off and captain Liam Sutcliffe took control of matters to impressive effect.
From two points adrift seven minutes into the second period, Leeds scored 30 points without reply, which was a good effort against a team fancied to do well in the second tier this season.
Importantly for Leeds, Zak Hardaker made his first appearance of pre-season, after England duty and then an illness suffered on last month’s Florida training camp.
It looked like he hadn’t played for four months and the game time will certainly have benefited the full-back ahead of next week’s Super League opener at Hull KR.
His error led indirectly to one Doncaster try, he was trapped in goal to concede a drop out which resulted in another and then provided an interception pass for the third, but on the positive side he put Jimmy Keinhorst and Liam Sutcliffe over for touchdowns and crossed himself as he grew into the game.
Prop Andy Yates gave a good account of himself, with some strong running and solid defence.
Hooker Robbie Ward also made a couple of key tackles and there were some nice touches from scrum-half Jordan Lilley.
He was the only player in Leeds’ starting line-up without Super League experience, but has played in three trial games and looks like a very smart footballer.
On this evidence he is also an outstanding goal kicker.
He landed seven from seven, most of those being from wide out.
The game was similar to Leeds’ Lazenby Cup win at Hunslet two weeks a go. Rhinos started slowly and made a host of mistakes in the first 40, but ran away with it once they hit their stride.
On that occasion at Hunslet they scored the final 28 points.
They need to be more consistent, but there’s clearly some exciting talent backing up Rhinos’ senior side.
Leeds – fielding fringe players, with academy youngsters on the bench – defended strongly and had to as Doncaster took the game to them early on.
The home team, smarting from a drubbing by Hunslet a week earlier, almost went ahead after seven minutes when Pas Dunn was tackled just short and then Steve Snitch, one of a number of former Wakefield players in their ranks, got over the line, but was held up by Ward and Elliot Minchella.
The same player crossed again moments later, but this time Yates, Ward and Josh Walters prevented him getting the ball down.
Yates made a fine try-saving tackle on Dave Scott and it took an outstanding stop from Luke Briscoe to keep out Steve Michaels – Hull’s Australian signing, who was playing for Doncaster on dual-registration – but Leeds finally cracked on 23 minutes. Hardaker failed to deal with a kick on the last, gifting the hosts a scrum 40 metres out. From that they moved the ball wide and Michaels’ excellent pass was finished well by Sam Doherty – a product of the Hunslet Warriors club – at the corner.
Though Ash Handley knocked on just short from Briscoe’s pass early on, Rhinos didn’t test the Dons’ line until the 26th minute. Ward forced his way over from dummy-half, the ball came loose and referee Adam Gill awarded a penalty for a ball steal.
James Duckworth, Sutcliffe and Minchella handled in front of the posts and Walters swooped over, with Lilley adding the goal. Rhinos were fortunate to be in front at that stage, but Doncaster got the interval lead they deserved two minutes before half-time when Mike Kelly stretched over off a pass by player-coach Paul Cooke. That came after enthusiastic defence had trapped Hardaker in-goal from a clever chip, chase and well-weighted kick by Josh Kittrick, the former Wakefield academy half-back – and son of ex-Guiseley FC manager Steve Kittrick – who had a strong game for the hosts in the first 40. Leeds, though, blew a golden chance after the hooter when Duckworth dashed clear with Mitch Achurch totally unmarked in support, but the winger opted to go himself and was tackled.
Leeds applied strong pressure at the start of the second half and went back in front five minutes in, when Ward spotted an overlap on the blindside and found Hardaker, whose quick pass was well finished by Keinhorst.
In the next set Hardaker threw out a wild pass which was comfortably intercepted by Danny Cowling and he crossed unopposed. Dave Scott’s conversion made it 14-12, but Leeds replied instantly after a Doncaster error, Sutcliffe dabbing a kick over the line and Hardaker reading it perfectly to run through and touch down. Lilley added an angled goal and booted two more in quick succession as Sutcliffe bagged a brace of tries.
The stand-off was anonymous in the first half, but ran the show after the break. He scored his first off a nice one-two with academy prop Sam Hallas and then cut through from some outstanding handling, involving Hardaker.
Prop Rob Mulhern had a strong second stint, though he was hurt late on. His charge carved out a try for Minchella, before Briscoe put on some neat footwork for Leeds’ seventh and final touchdown five minutes from time.
The penalty count finished 5-3 in Leeds’ favour.
The injury to Mulhern was a concern as he needed lengthy treatment on the field, but he regained his feet, walked off and was fine after the game.
Mulhern showed impressive pace to set up Minchella’s try and in making a break moments before he was injured. The 20-year-old, who made three substitute appearances in the senior team last year, is likely to spend this season on dual-registration at Hunslet, but looks capable of doing a job for Rhinos if called upon. He will certainly have gained from playing three games against seasoned opposition and Rhinos as a whole can be pleased with their five wins in pre-season, against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, USA Pioneers, Hunslet, Bradford Bulls and Doncaster.
There are signs Rhinos will be looking to play a more expansive game this year, but one thing they will need to improve on is their starts to games, having trailed early on three times.
Doncaster: Scott, Doherty, Michaels, Cowling, Vincent, Cooke, Kittrick, Tyson-Wilson, Emmett, Clarke, Palmer, Dunn, Snitch. Subs Robinson, Waller, Foster, Walton, Kelly, Waterman, Gilbey.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Duckworth, L Briscoe, Keinhorst, Handley, Sutcliffe, Lilley, Mulhern, R Ward, Yates, Achurch, Walters, Minchella. Subs Brierley, Milton, Frankland, Hallas, Golding.
Referee: Adam Gill.