DEFENDING CHAMPIONS Leeds Rhinos are off the mark after scrambling a gutsy 20-16 win over fellow strugglers Huddersfield Giants.
It was a poor game, though the close nature of the score made it tense late on, but – after Leeds had lost their opening three league games – the relief at the final whistle was obvious.
The conditions didn’t help the quality of the contest. Though Rhinos’ groundstaff did an excellent job making the pitch playable, it looked like a game between two teams at the bottom of the table.
There was plenty of effort, but far too many mistakes and a high penalty count. Both teams will improve when they get players back from injury, but on this form they are where they deserve to be.
Leeds desperately need an attacking spark, somebody who can bring their dangerous outside-backs into play and create a threat near the opposition’s line.
That said, they stuck at it and prop Brad Singleton was immense. Brett Delaney worked his socks off and Adam Cuthbertson and Jimmy Keinhorst also made a big contribution to the win.
Rhinos grabbed a rare lead early in the first half, but – yet again – errors and penalties took the pressure off Giants and allowed them to do most of the attacking after that.
Leeds defended well for much of the half, but a lapse in concentration and a try from a kick sent the visitors in ahead.
The third quarter was played mostly in Giants’ half and Rhinos levelled with 21 minutes to go. Giants went back in front almost immediately, but a try by Keinhorst and a superb conversion from Jordan Lilley nosed Leeds back ahead and a late penalty completed the scoring.
Rhinos dominated the second half territorially, on the back of an 8-1 penalty count, after it had been 7-5 in Giants’ favour in the first half.
After losing two of their opening three Super League games on goal kicks, the tries were again shared but this time it was Lilley’s outstanding kicking which made the difference.
Both teams were down to the bare bones in terms of personnel. Jordan Baldwinson came into Rhinos’ 17 for what – if he had got on – would have been his first competitive appearance since rejoining the club in the off-season following spells at New Zealand Warriors, Bradford Bulls and Featherstone Rovers.
He replaced Mitch Achurch, who must be one of the unluckiest players in the game.
The Aussie made his first Leeds appearance of the season in last week’s defeat at Catalans, despite a rib injury, but was ruled out last night due to illness.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who has not played since suffering a quad injury last July, was 18th man and could return against Wigan next Friday.
Baldwinson’s call-up meant Leeds’ entire 26-man squad were either in the team, injured or – in Mitch Garbutt’s case – serving a ban.
Adding to their problems, first half try scorer Joel Moon did not appear for the second 40 and Ash Handley limped off in the final quarter.
Keinhorst dropped to the bench after starting last week and Cuthbertson returned to the 17.
Giants’ situation was almost as bad. They got Danny Brough back, but were without eight players and lost another when Daniel Smith – a Rhinos academy product – limped off after only five minutes.
Rhinos went ahead – for the first time since the opening Super League game against Warrington exactly a month earlier – after eight minutes.
It was a good try. Hardaker hoisted a high kick to the left flank, Ryan Hall made a fine catch and dumped the ball back to Moon, who juggled before getting the ball down. Lilley landed a superb goal off the touchline, but it was all-square on 15. Leeds’ try came in a penalty set, but Giants got the next five and the third of those, plus a repeat set off Sutcliffe, gave them the field position.
Rhinos’ defence had been strong up to that point, but they conceded in soft fashion when Brough picked the ball up from acting-half and scampered through a gap for a score, which Jamie Foster improved.
A series of incidents went against the home side in the lead up to Giants’ second try, on the half hour. Brough kicked to the right, the ball took a deflection off Hall’s hand and went straight to Jermaine McGillvary, who narrowed the angle enough to give Foster a simple kick.
Leeds pressed from the start of the second half and mistakes by Giants kept them camped near the visitors’ line, but they struggled to carve out any clear openings against a strong defence.
Rhinos’ second try eventually came with 21 minutes left, after successive penalties, Sutcliffe bursting past three defenders from first receiver and Lilley keeping his nerve to add the conversion.
Having done all the pressing up to that stage, Leeds should have been able to go on with the game. Instead the unfortunate Hall fumbled a low kick by Brough a few metres out, under no real pressure and Michael Lawrence crossed from Kruise Leeming’s pass in the resulting set.
Leeds’ heads could have dropped, but they didn’t. Crucially, Foster could not convert and Leeds were almost level when Keinhorst hacked on, but McGillvary kicked the ball dead just before the German international got there.
Moments later Lilley grubbered over the line and this time Keinhorst got there just before the Giants winger.
Referee Richard Silverwood said no try, but the decision was overturned by video official Phil Bentham and Lilley landed a brilliant goal from the touchline to edge Leeds two points in front.
With six minutes remaining Giants were penalised for interference and Lilley took the two to make it 20-16.
Rhinos are understood to be keeping a close eye on scrum-half Ryan Brierley’s situation at Leigh Centurions.
The prolific try scorer, who has been linked with Leeds in the past, handed in his notice earlier in the week and was last night suspended by his club.
He is believed to be keen on a move to Headingley, but Rhinos have no room in their senior squad so may have to wait until next season to bring him in, if they decide to pursue the matter.
Leigh said last night Brierley was considering an offer to join their Championship rivals Bradford Bulls until the end of the season.