A blistering first half display set Leeds Rhinos on course for a record-breaking 52-36 win over Widnes Vikings at Halton Stadium.
Leeds were utterly ruthless for 40 minutes as they built a 38-6 lead at the interval, but they let themselves down badly as they sleep-walked through the second half.
From 48-6 up on 49 minutes, Rhinos conceded five of the game’s final six tries and while there was never any chance of Widnes getting on level terms, it spoiled what had the makings of a very encouraging afternoon for Rhinos.
Leeds ran in five tries in a 19- minute spell from the seventh to the 26th minute and then added a four more either side of the break.
But they got sloppy with the ball in the final half an hour and decided to stop tackling, though still managed to bring up their first half century of the season and complete their highest-ever score on Widnes’ ground.
Conceding 30 points in the second half, even in warm conditions with the game won, isn’t good enough and a huge improvement will be needed at Warrington on Friday night.
On the plus side, teenager Liam Sutcliffe continued his impressive introduction to Super League with ball in hand scoring a brace of tries which took his tally to five in the last three games.
He also provided the final pass for two more and was involved in another three of Leeds’ 10 touchdowns.
Alongside him Rob Burrow has looked much more assured since switching from hooker to his favoured scrum-half role and he flourished on the plastic pitch. Unusually, every member of Rhinos’ back division scored –with none of the forwards getting over the whitewash.
Rhinos’ ninth try, nine minutes into the second period, must be a contender for the most farcical score of the season.
Carl Ablett threw out a poor pass which was picked up by Jack Owens on half-way, with a clear run to the line.
Under no pressure he dropped the ball and a surprised Ablett gathered, ambled upfield and then sent the supporting Burrow over to cross between the posts.
Rhinos scored on their first excursion into Widnes territory, the attack being sparked by Gareth Hock’s offload to Chris Clarkson.
Joel Moon stepped through to score between the posts off Ablett’s pass after Richard Moore and Sutcliffe had also handled.
Moon returned after a one-match ban and Kallum Watkins making his welcome – and unexpectedly early – comeback from the ankle injury he suffered at Hull a month earlier.
Thomas Minns dropped to the under-19s and Jimmy Keinhorst was on the bench, playing in the second-row when he was introduced soon after half-time.
Reading out the teams, the Widnes announcer commented “I thought you were meant to have injuries”.
He had a point, it was a pretty strong line-up, even with eight players – Jamie Jones-Buchanan being the latest casualty – on the injured list.
Clarkson stepped up to take Jones-Buchanan’s place in the starting 13 and Alex Foster was among the substitutes for his Super League debut, replacing Jordan Baldwinson, who played in the under-19s. Foster, 19, is the first player from the relatively new Wetherby Bulldogs club to make it to Super League, coming on for the final 20 minutes.
Leeds’ second try was a cracker as they exploited the artificial surface. Zak Hardaker – who was outstanding in attack – burst between Stefan Marsh and Hock and accelerated to half-way before finding Watkins. He shipped the ball on to Sutcliffe – who had read the move well to pop up in support on the wing and scamper over.
He also had a hand in Leeds’ third touchdown, taking a pass from Burrow and supplying Hardaker, whose final ball was finished by Moon and his fifth senior touchdown followed soon afterwards.Ben Kavanagh lost possession and McShane, Jamie Peacock, Burrow and Hardaker worked the ball from left to right, for Sutcliffe to go over again – though Widnes looked to have justifiable complaints about an obstruction in the build-up.
And the teenager showed good strength moments later after taking a pass from Clarkson and he was smart enough to use the supporting Burrow, rather than going for glory himself.
Hardaker’s third conversion made it 26-0 after as many minutes and it was almost more in the next set, but Watkins spilled Sutcliffe’s pass. Kevin Brown was one of the few Widnes players who looked interested and he thought he’d opened the defence up on the half hour, but Moore pulled the ball out and at the end of the resulting set Paul McShane kicked over the top for Hall to catch and put down.
Moore had a strong game, though he tended to over-do things at times, which is likely to prove costly against better opposition.
Hardaker landed a magnificent touchline conversion and was adding the extras again moments later, to his own touchdown. Sutcliffe again provided the final pass, but this time it was Burrow who did the real damage with two excellent runs.
In the final seconds of the half Mitch Achurch knocked on and then Leeds were caught offside as the hooter sounded and Brown stepped through to open Widnes’ account, with Jack Owens adding the first of his six conversions to make it 38-6.
Watkins regained the second-half kick off and after a couple of unlucky touches by Widnes, McShane, Burrow, Sutcliffe and Watkins linked across the line to put Ben Jones-Bishop in on 42 minutes. Burrow’s second try – after Owen’s howler – followed soon afterwards, but the rest of the game is best forgotten from Rhinos’ point of view.
Vikings scored the next two tries, Brown putting Hock over before the stand-off returned the favour. Owens added the extras to both, but Sutcliffe pocketed the re-start from the second and Watkins completed the back line’s full house to bring up the half century.
Leeds put the cue on the rack after that, allowing Brown, Hanbury and Hock all to cross in the final 10 minutes.
In fairness, Rhinos did chop and change late on, resting some of their key players and using others out of position. At one stage, Brad Singleton was at hooker in the scrum, with McShane propping. The penalty count finished 7-2 in Widnes’ favour (4-1 in the first half).
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury, Owens, Phelps, Marsh, Ah Van, Brown, Mellor, Pickersgill, Clarke, O’Carroll, Hock, Winterstein, Gerrard. Subs: Leuluai, Kavanagh, Joseph, Craven.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, Burrow, Moore, McShane, Peacock, Ablett, Clarkson, Singleton. Subs: Kirke, Keinhorst, Foster, Achurch.
Referee: Thierry Alibert (Toulouse).