THE MOST unexpected fixture of the season had a predictable outcome as Leeds Rhinos saw off part-timers Batley Bulldogs at Headingley, but the final 32-0 scoreline was a surprise.
Watched from the stands by ex-Leeds favourite Matt Diskin, who will take over from John Kear as their coach at the end of this season, Batley gave a good account of themselves.
It took Leeds 17 minutes to break the deadlock and they managed only 16 points in each half.
Bulldogs had spells of pressure, but probably regretted turning down a straight-forward two points from a penalty in the first half.
Batley didn’t have the power or skills to trouble Leeds’ defence, but they looked like a Kear team, well-organised and hugely spirited.
They tried to play rugby and could leave the field with heads held high. Shaun Ainscough, Dominic Brambani, Alistair Leak, Alex Rowe and Alex Bretherton, in particular, lost nothing in comparision to their full-time opponents.
That said, Leeds were poor.
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Batley had conceded 58 against Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants in the middle-eights and 76 to London Broncos, so Leeds’ total was below par.
But this wasn’t the Leeds who won the treble playing Batley. It was the team who finished fourth from bottom in Super League and lost seven successive games in the middle of the year.
They played a basic game and waited for Batley to run out of steam.
Surprisingly, considering many of Batley’s players had travelled to the game straight from a full shift at their day jobs, that didn’t happen and Bulldogs were competitive throughout.
Leeds finished with six tries and the way they struggled to break down a Championship defence highlighted their big problem this season, which has been scoring points.
Last night’s result extended Leeds’ winning run to eight matches, including all five of their Qualifiers so far, but they are still not guaranteed a place in First Utility Super League next year.
If they lose their final two matches they could be overtaken on points difference by Huddersfield and Hull KR, which would dump them into the million pound game.
But if Giants lose at Leigh Centurions today or Hull KR fail to win any of their three remaining games – against London Broncos, Featherstone Rovers and Huddersfield – Rhinos will be safe.
Rhinos boss Brian McDermott took no chances, naming his strongest-available line-up.
Joel Moon was sidelined due to a groin problem and Mitch Garbutt (calf) also dropped out.
They joined Danny McGuire (foot) and Brett Delaney (knee) on the casualty list.
Anthony Mullally and Ashton Golding, who both played against Batley for Featherstone Rovers in the Kingstone Press Championship two months ago – came in on the bench and Jordan Lilley stepped up to start in the halves.
Golding got on with 15 minutes left and Mullally joined him a few minutes’ later.
Batley called up former Wigan winger Ainscough and Joe Chandler – who made one substitute appearance for Leeds in Super League eight years ago – was drafted in on the bench.
Unfortunately for him and them, Batley’s Leeds-born front-rower James Brown was ruled out after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Featherstone last weekend.
The expected landslide of points never looked on and Batley showed tremendous resolve to hold on in the late stages, when they must have been running on fumes.
Dave Scott, Batley’s Scottish international full-back, had a good game, one mistake apart. He made an excellent tackle to deny Liam Sutcliffe after he had been sent clear by Brad Singleton.
Leak got over the line for Batley on 13 minutes, but referee Joe Cobb had already blown for a knock-on. Bulldogs had the feed at the resulting scrum and were then awarded a penalty in front of the posts.
They could have put points on the board by taking the two, but tapped it and were almost immediately penalised in possession.
Leeds finally got going through Tom Briscoe, who crossed at the corner from Kallum Watkins’ excellent pass after Lilley and Brett Ferres had handled.
Lilley converted from the touchline for the first of his four goals, but James Segeyaro dropped the restart to begin a spell of Batley pressure through two goalline drop outs and a penalty.
They couldn’t find a way through and Leeds went further in front on 30 minutes through Watkins, who climbed out of a tackle to score from Ferres’ pass.
Two minutes before the break Rhinos received a penalty close to Batley’s line – for a high shot on Sutcliffe – and Watkins went over again in the resulting set, from Ferres’ pass.
Ferres was Leeds’ best player. He kept the home line intact at the start of the second half with a last gasp effort to haul down James Davey after he had split the defence.
The third quarter was scrappy, with referee Cobb trying to blow the pea out of his whistle and both sides making soft errors.
Leeds eventually extended their lead with a rare moment of quality, Ryan Hall going over from Sutcliffe’s cut-out pass on 64 minutes.
The conversion made it 22-0 and what happened in the next set summarised Leeds’ sloppy performance as Jamie Jones-Buchanan sent Carl Ablett clear with Segeyaro in support, but he held on too long and hurled a pass forward out of Scott’s tackle.
Leeds’ next points didn’t come until 14 minutes from time when Hall went over again,from close range.
And they completed the scoring two minutes later, Rob Burrow backing up a break by Brad Singleton.
A word for referee Cobb. Poor.
The final penalty count was 8-8 (5-3 in Batley’s favour in the first half).
Despite the high number of penalties there was no malice in the game, though a high tackle by Tom Lillycrop on Jones-Buchanan was probably worth more punishment than Cobb’s decision of only a penalty.
At the start of the season Batley could not have expected to be visiting Headingley in a league fixture.
They earned the right and did themselves proud. Playing in front of a 15,135 crowd should be a lasting memory for their players.
Meanwhile, Rhinos’ under-19s were beaten 50-32 by Salford in yesterday’s curtain-raiser. Leeds’ try scorers were Nathan Waring, Cameron Smith, Ryan Jones, Josh Jordan-Roberts and Joe Sanderson, who converted all five.