There’s life in the old Rhino yet. Kevin Sinfield proved that when he came in from the cold and inspired the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup holders to a hugely impressive 48-16 sixth round demolition of Huddersfield Giants.
Sinfield’s exile from firstly the starting 13 and then the team altogether has been the big talking point surrounding Leeds Rhinos over the past month or so, but the 34-year-old’s man-of-the-match display, in front of the BBC television cameras, illustrated the fact he still has plenty to offer.
Sinfield had been dropped for the previous two games, after being among the substitutes for the couple before that. Rhinos won just one of those, a fine 41-16 victory at Super League champions St Helens when emerging stand-off Liam Sutcliffe produced probably his finest performance so far.
But Leeds clearly lacked their captain’s leadership, game-management and goal kicking in the three matches after that, losses to Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings, either side of a draw at Huddersfield.
Recalled straight in at No 6, Sinfield showed everyone what Leeds have been missing with a dynamic display at the heart of what was a magnificent team effort. He kicked well in general play, organised the team around the field and landed eight goals from nine attempts. All that was missing was a try and another conversion, which would have made him the third-highest points scorer in rugby league’s history.
As it was, his 16 points left him on 4,046, just four short of equalling Gus Risman’s career tally.
Sutcliffe was left out of the 17, which can’t have been an easy call for coach Brian McDermott to make, but he is only 20 and still learning and stepping back for a game or two won’t do him any harm.
Leeds looked a much better balanced team all round. Ryan Hall returned after missing five games due to a fractured wrist – with Jimmy Keinhorst dropping out of the back division – and that allowed Kallum Watkins to switch from wing to centre, where he is much more at home and effective.
Both players had a big game, each scoring a brace of tries. Watkins was a threat to Giants, who boast the meanest defence in Super League, every time he touched the ball and Hall finished strongly and ran hard when clearing Leeds’ line.
Paul Aiton and Jamie Peacock, who was wearing a microphone as part of the BBC’s coverage, started at hooker and prop respectively, swapping places with benched duo Brad Singleton and Rob Burrow. Aiton was lively and scored only the second try of his Rhinos career, both of those coming against Huddersfield at Headingley.
Peacock produced his characteristically high work-rate and Singleton ran hard and strong, as well as putting in a huge hit on massive Giants forward Eorl Crabtree, which was a clear statement of intent. Burrow was left on the bench until the second half, but added some fresh impetus when he got on, providing a lovely no-look pass to put Adam Cuthbertson – back at his best after a couple of tired performances – over for a touchdown in the final quarter.
The BBC handed the man of the match accolade to Sinfield, but Watkins must have been a contender, along with Stevie Ward, who turned in another all-action effort and must surely be playing himself into England contention.
However, this writer’s vote would have gone to Zak Hardaker, who underlined his status as the best defensive full-back in the British game, while also looking an attacking threat whenever he got his hands on the ball.
Just before the hour Joe Wardle, one of Huddersfield’s best on the day, made a break down Rhinos’ right flank and turned the ball inside to Scott Grix, who looked a certain scorer only for Hardaker to chase back and nail him just short of the line. There won’t be many better tackles made this season.
That exemplified Leeds’ improved attitude to defence from the previous week at Widnes, when they conceded 38 points. Giants are a dangerous team, but were restricted to three tries, two of those late on when the game was well out of their reach.
It was Leeds’ attack which really shone though and in this mood, they are a terrific team to watch.
Of their eight tries, two really stood out.
Giants, down 22-4 at the break, needed to score first after half-time to make a game of it, but on 50 minutes the ball was moved right and then back left, Aiton, Peacock, Sinfield, Hardaker, Sinfield, Peacock, Cuthbertson, Brett Delaney, Danny McGuire, Joel Moon and Hall all handling before McGuire nipped over to make the game safe, with his 249th Rhinos touchdown. In all the euphoria surrounding Rhinos’ return to form, the fact that the try took McGuire to 1,001 points for the Headingley club went unnoticed.
He is only the 13th player to have reached four figures for Leeds and two of the others – Sinfield and Burrow – are in the same team.
Just as eye-catching was Hall’s second, 15 minutes from time. It came in the set from the re-start after Cuthbertson’s score. McGuire looped a pass to Moon, he surged upfield and passed to Hall, who sent McGuire scorching clear. Jack Hughes managed to get a hand on him, but couldn’t prevent the ball being returned to the winger.
Watkins scored the opening two tries, the second off some magic by Sinfield, before Moon put Hall over and then Aiton touched down after Leroy Cudjoe had hacked a kick against a post. That made it 22-0 after 20, but Kyle Wood cut through just before the break to get Giants off the mark. Sinfield kicked a penalty following McGuire’s try and the score blew out to 42-4 before Brett Ferres, who had a good game and Grix grabbed consolations tries off passes by Danny Brough, who converted both. But it was Leeds’ day and they finished in style when Carl Ablett scored an interception try, from Brough’s offload, late on.
The game started with one referee, but finished controlled by another. Phil Bentham injured a hamstring keeping up with play when Watkins snapped up Grix’s off-load to race 90 metres for the opening score. He carried on until half-time and was then replaced by touch judge Jonathan Roberts, who had never previously refereed above League One level. He essentially let the players get on with things and could walk off at the end happy with a job well done. The first-half penalty count was 6-6 and it was 3-2 in Giants’ favour after the interval.
Bentham was involved in an unusual early incident when Aiton’s kick struck him and Cuthbertson touched down, video referees Ben Thaler and Richard Silverwood – correctly – disallowing the try and ordering a drop out.