WHAT HAD the potential to be a tough night for Leeds Rhinos was instead a rout as they destroyed a dire Salford Red Devils outfit 70-6 at Headingley Carnegie.
Rhinos ran in 13 tries, nine of them converted by Zak Hardaker for a personal points tally of 26.
It was fun for the home fans, but not great for the competition.
The win boosted Rhinos’ points difference and moved them back into top spot on the First Utility Super League table with one round of the regular season remaining.
There were reasons before kick-off for expecting a contest. Rhinos were without a number of key players, while Salford had won their previous two games and needed a victory to keep alive faint hopes of a place in the Super-8s.
But Salford produced an utterly inept display, ill-disciplined and packed with errors and they were ruthlessly despatched by a Leeds team who gave an attacking masterclass.
Rhinos scored at a point per minute in the first half and bombed two glorious chances, so it could have been even worse than 40-0 for the visitors at the break.
Early on Hardaker offloaded into touch when a try was on and later Brad Singleton burst upfield with Rob Burrow on his shoulder, but ran into full-back Niall Evalds.
They could be excused a couple of blunders, because Rhinos played some glorious stuff in the opening period.
The second 40 produced more of the same and Leeds deserve credit for keeping the hammer down, though coach Brian McDermott did take the opportunity to give some players a rest and try a few things – including a spell with Zak Hardaker and Carl Ablett in the halves and Joel Moon at full-back.
The quality of the opposition has to be factored in, but it was hard to fault anybody in the Leeds team.
Danny McGuire rolled back the years with a vintage performance and special mentions also go to Paul Aiton, Jimmy Keinhorst and Aussie Mitch Garbutt.
Aiton is in the sort of form which made him such a key player in his Wakefield days and, though it’s early, Garbutt shows signs of being an outstanding signing for Leeds.
Rhinos’ attack hasn’t always fired this year, but when it does – like last night – they are a tremendous side to watch.
They went ahead after seven minutes. A penalty came to naught when Michael Dobson pounced on an error by McGuire. But he messed up the play-the-ball to give Rhinos possession back and after the No 7’s high tackle on Keinhorst conceded another penalty, McGuire spun over from Burrow’s pass.
Hardaker took kicking duties in the absence of Kevin Sinfield, who was sidelined by a back injury. He joined Tom Briscoe, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Stevie Ward, Mitch Achurch and Liam Sutcliffe on the casualty list.
Jamie Peacock was rested after his 80-0 minute effort last week and Andy Yates dropped out.
Hardaker’s return from suspension allowed Kallum Watkins to move back to centre and Keinhorst returned to the second-row, with Burrow stepping up to start at scrum-half.
Garbutt was recalled on the bench after a back problem and Robbie Ward came in for his second substitute appearance of the season.
It was 12-0 after 10 minutes. Weller Hauraki knocked on, Cory Paterson conceded a penalty and following all that, Adam Cuthbertson crashed over from Paul Aiton’s flat pass.
A sensational eight-pass movement almost produced another try moments later, but Hardaker offloaded into touch.
Salford were without Rangi Chase, who has a back injury, so Theo Fages and Dobson were in the halves.
The former almost opened their account on 17 minutes, but Kylie Leuluai’s ankle tap kept him out, then Adrian Morley was held on the line.
Seconds after that, Morley was in the sin-bin. In his final appearance at Headingley, where he made his professional debut 20 years ago, he flattened Burrow with a high shot and Rhinos added three more tries while he was off, to make it 30 after 27 minutes.
In the set following the yellow card, Kallum Watkins – once a ball boy at Salford – crossed wide out after Hardaker, Brett Delaney, McGuire and Keinhorst had handled.
Moments later McGuire dabbed a kick between the posts and Delaney read it well to touch down, to the delight of his mate Ryan Bailey, who was sitting in front of the press box.
The re-start went out on the full and Leeds scored again as Hardaker went over from Carl Ablett’s brilliant offload, after McGuire and Burrow had handled.
Hall added the next try off a pass by Joel Moon, who had a touchdown ruled out for a double-movement before crossing for the seventh try of the half on the last tackle, from McGuire’s pass.
Leeds old boy Ben Jones-Bishop got over the line at the start of the second half, but Junior Sau’s pass was well forward.
In the following set Burrow, McGuire and Hardaker teed up Ash Handley for a run and he returned the ball to put the full-back over.
At that stage, 46-0 after 48 minutes, Leeds’ priority would have been to keep a clean sheet.
But on 52 Dobson kicked against a post, there was a huge scramble and Evalds touched down, Paterson adding the extras. Normal service was resumed soon afterwards when Hall powered over, then Keinhorst scored a deserved try, backing up Ablett’s break.
The German international has been a revelation since beginning his current run in the side and he had another excellent game.
Josh Walters scored the 11th try in bizarre style with 17 minutes left.
He backed up Hardaker’s break, but was brought down by Evalds and crashed into a post.
With nobody anywhere near him, he sat up, realised the tackle wasn’t complete and planted the ball down.
That may have been the first try ever scored at Headingley from a sitting position!
Ablett scored the final two, forcing his way over from Moon’s pass, making it 64-6 after 65 and crossing on the final play, off good work by Moon.
The penalty count finished a huge 14-5 in Rhinos’ favour (7-3 in the first half), but Salford could have few real complaints.
The evening ended with a tribute to Morley on the big screen.
It was a shame his final game at the ground was so one-sided.
Ryan Hampshire and Anthony Gelling both scored in the last 10 minutes as Wigan defeated Widnes 20-10 at the DW Stadium.
Only a victory was good enough for Denis Betts’ Widnes as they needed to collect maximum points from their last two matches to have a chance of finishing in the top eight.