IT LOOKED like the absence of skipper Kevin Sinfield was going to cost Leeds Rhinos two points against Catalan Dragons yesterday, but then Liam Sutcliffe became the last-gasp hero.
There were 215 seconds left when Morgan Escare kicked a drop goal to give the French visitors a one-point lead.
The French side touched the re-start before it went 10 metres to give Leeds a penalty on half-way.
If Jason Baitieri hadn’t handled the ball it would have been a Catalan penalty and game over.
Maybe Sinfield (rested due to a tight back) would have gone for goal.
Instead Leeds kicked for touch, came up with a poor set and got nowhere.
The game was in Dragons’ pockets’ but with a minute left they were penalised in possession, for obstruction following a mix-up between Zeb Taia and Ben Pomeroy.
The obstruction rule has caused a huge debate this season and led to a Dragons try earlier in the half, when Leeds were penalised in similar style, but this time it was a lifeline for the hosts.
Sutcliffe is Rhinos’ fourth-choice kicker, behind Sinfield, Zak Hardaker and Rob Burrow, who were all out of the team.
He had missed three of his six previous shots at goal – though they were all difficult attempts – and this one was 30 metres out, 15 in from the touchline.
The hooter sounded before he stepped up, but the 19-year-old kept his nerve, the kick was good and Leeds won, 32-31.
It’s a moment Sutcliffe and the 13,888 crowd will remember for a long time.
But though Leeds scored six tries to the visitors’ five, they were below-par and it was a game Catalan lost, with their two catastrophic mistakes after the Escare one-pointer.
Leeds made a host of errors, played some panic rugby at times and were unusually frail in defence.
Sinfield’s game-management was certainly missed and Catalan, who were ahead for most of the match, will never get a better chance to break their Headingley Carnegie duck.
Escare is one of the most exciting talents in Super League and he scored a terrific try to open the scoring after two minutes, stepping through from Leon Pryce’s pass. Sam Williams landed the first of his four conversions.
Leeds hit back on eight when Ryan Hall got over at the corner from a pass by the impressive Joel Moon, after Sutcliffe, McGuire and Ben Jones-Bishop had also handled.
But soon after that Brett Delaney was placed on report for a late challenge on Pryce and Williams took the two points.
Pryce lay motionless for a while, but – after the penalty had been confirmed – regained his feet and played on.
On 19 came one of those moments that fans pay good money to see.
Jones-Bishop picked up Williams’ kick near the Leeds line, shrugged off Escare and then outpaced the rest of the defence on an exhilarating sprint to the line.
Pryce had recovered sufficiently to handle in the move which led to Catalan’s second try, on 23, linking with Williams to put Zeb Taia in.
On 31 minutes Williams, who was hugely influential, sent Eloi Pelissier over to make it 20-8, but Leeds halved the gap just before the break when teenage sub Josh Walters – definitely the find of the season so far – ran at pace on to Peacock’s pass and Sutcliffe landed the first of his four goals.
On 44 minutes Rhinos were penalised in possession for obstruction and Taia went over for his second try in the subsequent set.
Leeds’ inability to defend penalty sets was a key factor in the game. All but one of Catalan’s tries came after Leeds had been penalised.
Moon got over from McGuire’s pass on 52 for an unconverted try and six later Carl Ablett was surrounded by four defenders, but somehow had the strength and guile to get the ball down.
Sutcliffe’s conversion levelled the scores and on 65 – after Escare’s wonderful break was halted by Hall – Pryce hurled out a long pass and Moon intercepted to go over from half-way.
The conversion opened a six-point gap, but Daryl Millard scored a converted try from Pryce’s pass with 10 left before Escare’s drop goal seemed to have won it for Catalan.
With Sinfield out, Leeds were captained by Jamie Peacock on his 400th Super League appearance.
There were a series of changes from the side which won at Widnes seven days earlier.
Kylie Leuluai was due to be back in the other front-row slot, but his calf problem reoccured during the warm-up, so Brad Singleton started and 18th man Stevie Ward came on to the bench.
Mitch Achurch – after a three-game injury lay-off – and Luke Briscoe also returned among the substitutes.
Sutcliffe switched from loose-forward into the halves in place of Sinfield and Paul Aiton got a start at hooker, as Robbie Ward dropped out. Ian Kirke (head) and Jamie Jones-Buchanan (calf) dropped out, joining Burrow (collarbone) and Chris Clarkson on the casualty list, while it was the third game of Hardaker’s five-match ban.
The penalty count finished 10-8 to Leeds (5-4 in Dragons’ favour in the first half).
Rhinos wore an all-yellow kit to mark the start of the build-up to next Saturday’s Tour de France Grand Depart in Leeds.
Catalan had been due to wear a red polka dot design – modelled on the King of the Mountains’ jersey – but, according to Catalan officials – race organisers refused permission.
Leeds Rhinos: Jones-Bishop, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Sutcliffe, Leuluai, Aiton, Peacock, Ablett, Delaney, Bailey. Subs (all used) Achurch, Singleton, Walters, Briscoe.
Catalan Dragons: Escare, Oldfield, Pomeroy, Duport, Millard, Pryce, Williams, Elima, Henderson, Lima, Taia, Whitehead, Baitieri. Subs (all used) Anderson, Mounis, Pelissier, Garcia
Referee: Robert Hicks (Oldham).