LEEDS RHINOS staged a late rally to continue their winning ways at Hull KR last night and guarantee themselves four home games in the middle-eight Qualifiers.
Leeds’ 24-20 triumph – their fifth win in six games – lifted them to ninth on the table and though they will drop a place if Salford beat Hull tonight, the champions can finish no lower than 10th.
Rovers will have three home games and four away and could end the regular season bottom of the pile, if Huddersfield Giants shock Warrington Wolves tomorrow.
It was a poor game in terms of quality, but fast, frantic and exciting and – like Rhinos’ last four games – the result was in the balance until the final hooter.
Rhinos led 12-10 at the break, their tries coming through some individual brilliance in successive sets mid-way through the half.
Rovers opened the scoring – the first team in 11 games to do that against Leeds – and deservedly got back into it before the interval.
The hosts struck again at the start of the second half and the game got even more frantic after that.
Leeds applied strong pressure, but looked vulnerable on the break and Rovers were favourites until Rhino snatched a third touchdown 15 minutes from time.
They seemed to have made it safe with another score with two minutes left, but incredibly Rovers scored straight from the restart and were attacking in search of a winner when the hooter blew.
Though the result went against them it was creditable performance by a much-altered Rovers side.
Leeds product Thomas Minns was in the Robins’ starting line-up with another former Leeds man, Robbie Mulhern, on the bench.
Two more ex-Rhinos, Chris Clarkson and Shaun Lunt, were among five players who dropped out from Hull KR’s defeat at Hull a week earlier.
An error-strewn opening set the tone for the contest, with Jimmy Keinhorst failing to take Rob Burrow’s pass near the Rovers line on Leeds’ only real attack in the early stages.
Then good hands from James Segeyaro, Jordan Lilley and Burrow created an opening for Carl Ablett a few metres out, but he offloaded straight to John Boudebza.
Rhinos were penalised in the next set and at the end of it Boudebza dabbed a kick between the posts and Matty Marsh ran through to touch down.
Josh Mantellato converted, after 14 minutes, but the lead was short-lived.
Rovers were agonisingly close to increasing their advantage when Albert Kelly’s towering kick picked out Mantellato over the Leeds line, but he knocked-on.
Rhinos surged upfield from the tap re-start and Keinhorst accepted Burrow’s pass, broke past Kelly, stepped inside and stretched over through Boudebza’s last ditch tackle.
Keinhorst started at centre for Rhinos in place of Joel Moon, who injured a knee in last week’s win over Wigan.
The only other change to the starting line-up saw Mitch Achurch drop to the bench, with Brett Ferres stepping up into the second-row.
Mitch Garbutt returned, after a back problem, among the substitutes and Ashton Golding, who has been playing on dual-registration for Featherstone Rovers, was also recalled on the bench, though he was not used.
Brett Delaney was the other player to drop out, due to illness and Danny McGuire remained on the casualty list, for the third successive game, because of a foot injury.
Liam Sutcliffe converted the try and was involved when Leeds struck again in the set from the re-start.
He made ground from the strong-running Garbutt’s pass and then Burrow broke through for a trademark try from first-receiver, which the full-back converted.
Brad Singleton, who had a big game, was held up over the line on 31 minutes and the chance was wasted when Sutcliffe passed to Ken Sio. Rovers cut the gap to two points four minutes before the break after an error by Sutcliffe behind the line gifted them a drop out.
Kelly had been off the field for a spell, but returned to provide the pass which sent Blair powering in past Lilley’s attempted tackle. There was no conversion, but Adam Walker was centimetres away from stretching over just before the interval and then Boudebza was held up over the whitewash on the last.
There was still time for Rovers to make a mess of a scrum near their own line with 20 seconds of the half remaining.
Kelly’s kick was charged down by Ablett and rebounded in goal. Singleton touched down, but referee Robert Hicks said ‘no try’ – spotting Kelly get a hand on the ball first – and video assistant Chris Kendall agreed.
Rovers went ahead moments after the resumption with a brilliant length-of-the-field try.
Lilley kicked towards Ryan Hall, but the ball was batted down and picked up by Kelly. He burst clear before supplying Minns, who offloaded for Sio to race over.
Hicks indicated a try and – despite an apparent Rovers knock-on from the kick – Campbell gave the green light, Mantellato adding the extras.
Segeyaro became the third Leeds player to pass to an opponent near Rovers’ line and that statistic illustrates the frantic nature of Rhinos’ performance.
With just four points between the team and temperatures rising, it was a game which cried out for a cool head, but that is something Leeds have lacked all year – though they do now have the ability to tough out close games.
The visitors regained the lead with 15 minutes left, after Ben Cockayne spilled Burrow’s towering kick.
Keith Galloway handled first before a one-two between Segeyaro and Brett Ferres sent the hooker over for his first Leeds try.
Sutcliffe added the two and Leeds made a clean break after that through Kallum Watkins. He had Segeyaro in support, but the defence ran him down.
Sio’s tremendous run almost snatched it for Rovers with four minutes left, but Leeds seemed to have sealed it when Hall pounced on Minns’ error to race over, Sutcliffe converting.
There were less than two minutes left, but Minns gained possession from the re-start and kicked ahead for Kieran Dixon to touch down.
That made it four tries each, but there was no goal and Leeds had just done enough to complete a crucial win.
Segeyaro was placed on report in the first half following an alleged shoulder charge on James Green, who had to go off.
Hicks took no other action, but belatedly crossed his arms after several replays on the big screen.
The penalty count finished 9-8 in Leeds’ favour (6-3 to Rovers in the first half).