WHEN KYLE Briggs brilliantly converted Anthony Thackeray’s try for Featherstone Rovers 29 minutes into the opening game of the First Utility Qualifiers, Leeds Rhinos were in some jeopardy.
Their lead was cut to 10-6 and, facing the prospect of playing up the slope in the second half on a hot afternoon, last year’s treble winners knew they were in a game.
They managed to add a converted try and a penalty before the interval to lead 18-6, but Rovers came out for the second half with fire in their bellies and the genuine prospect of pushing the visitors all the way.
But there is a massive gulf in rugby league between full-time players and those who do a ‘proper job’ for a living and train in the evenings, two or three times a week.
Finishing fourth in the Kingstone Press Championship – ahead of two full-time teams – and securing a place in the middle-eights was a notable achievement by Featherstone, who have made big strides under coach Jon Sharp.
However, the Qualifiers round-one fixture highlighted the scale of the task facing the lower division sides in their battle for promotion to Super League.
Rhinos went into the game as a form team, with five wins from their previous six matches, but were Super League’s lowest scorers. Though Featherstone boasted the Championship’s meanest defence, the difference in class became obvious in the second half.
The pace of the game and Leeds’ power began to tell and the final 40 minutes were a rout as Rhinos ran in eight tries, scoring 44 points without reply.
The final 62-6 scoreline was tough on Featherstone and gave no indication of how well they played in the first 40. They defended spiritedly throughout the first half and got more into the contest as it went on.
Leeds, though, were ruthless and very professional and, after a poor first two-thirds of the season, the 2016 champions are finally approaching their potential.
For the club’s first fixture below the elite level of the sport since 1903, Rhinos fielded their strongest line-up of the season so far.
Only Stevie Ward, who has not played this year, was unavailable due to injury and Adam Cuthbertson was 18th man.
Danny McGuire, Joel Moon and Brett Delaney returned after spells on the sidelines, but the last hobbled off mid-way through the second half after suffering a suspected dislocated kneecap.
Eleven of the players on duty at Big Fellas Stadium, Post Office Road, featured in last October’s Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors and another was a Wembley victor 12 months ago, against Hull KR.
The rest weren’t mugs, including a former NRL hooker of the year, Australian Test front-rower and England international.
On paper Leeds’ side was too good to be in the Qualifiers.
They are in there because they were poor over the opening five months of the season, but if they continue their current rate of improvement, relegation will be avoided safely and it will take a good performance to beat them in their final six games of the year.
Kallum Watkins had a slow start to 2016, but has been on an upward curve for the past six weeks and was too hot for Rovers to handle, running in four tries and having a hand in three others.
With Moon flourishing on the other flank, Rovers struggled to contain Leeds on the edges.
Liam Sutcliffe contributed 26 points from a brace of tries and nine goals and he looks the part at full-back.
James Segeyaro again added some classy touches and persuading him to stay at the club next year must be a priority for Rhinos.
He said before the game he has not yet made a decision on where he will be playing in 2016, which has to be a concern.
If he were to opt to return to Australia late in the year Leeds could find themselves in a similar situation to the autumn of 2015, when they brought in Beau Falloon at late notice, which didn’t work out for either party.
Leeds gambled by allowing their players Jordan Baldwinson and Luke Briscoe to play on loan for Rovers. Briscoe was in direct opposition to his older brother Tom, who was one of Leeds’ try scorers.
But Luke had a real dig and made a terrific break in the second half which led to Rhinos being reduced to 12 players for a spell after Jimmy Keinhorst made a tremendous try-saving tackle on Ian Hardman, but was then sin-binned for holding down.
Thackeray went over in the set from the penalty, but there was a clear obstruction and video official Chris Kendall awarded a penalty to Leeds, after referee Joe Cobb had sent it up as a try. Leeds received seven penalties to Featherstone’s six. The count was 4-3 in Rovers’ favour in the first half.
The result was painful for the hosts, but they played better than the 56-point margin suggests. Hardman, who works for Rhinos’ Foundation, had a strong game and Misi Taulapapa also impressed in the backs.
There were also big contributions off the bench by Bradley Tagg and Luke Cooper.
Rovers’ try stemmed from a poor pass by Brett Ferres, straight to Taulapapa.
He broke upfield and Cooper continued the move. His pass was knocked down by Tom Briscoe and Thackeray hacked on and ran through to touch down.
Liam Sutcliffe and McGuire had earlier created the opening try for Watkins, before Carl Ablett and the centre carved out a touchdown for Sutcliffe.
Moon surged over, following good work by Segeyaro and Ablett and Sutcliffe booted a penalty with the final kick of the opening 40.
Sutcliffe converted Moon’s try off the touchline despite a firework being ignited in the stand behind him. The fan responsible was ejected from the ground.
He missed one particularly simple attempt in the second period, but is growing into the role of Rhinos’ first-choice marksman.
Rovers could have made a game of it if they had scored first after half-time.
Instead Leeds set the pattern for the half with two tries in three minutes, through Watkins and Mitch Achurch.
Ablett powered over from Segeyaro’s pass and then Tom Briscoe scored a fine try and Sutcliffe added his second, taking the score from 18-6 at the break to 44-6 at the end of the third quarter.
Moon scored his second after Keinhorst was yellow-carded and Watkins went over for the final two tries of the game, his fourth of the afternoon being an eye-catching charge up the slope from close to Rhinos’ line.
The crowd of 6,671 was Rovers’ best in the summer era.