LEEDS RHINOS will go into the play-offs in relegation form – on the back of five successive Super League defeats – after an abject 24-19 loss at Hull last night.
Rhinos led 19-4 with 18 minutes left, but then collapsed in a heap to concede four unanswered tries.
The result did not alter Leeds’ position of sixth in the league table and they now know their opponents in next Saturday’s opening elimination play-off.
Widnes Vikings’ defeat at Salford Red Devils last night stranded them in eighth place and means Catalan Dragons will finish seventh and travel to Headingley Carnegie.
Unless Rhinos improve it won’t matter who they play. For Leeds last night was a dismal end to a dismal second half of the league campaign.
Rhinos picked up 23 points in the first 14 rounds of the season, from 11 wins, two defeats and a draw.
In stark contrast, the 13 league games since the home clash with Hull yielded just nine points.
Last night was their eighth defeat in that time, with just four wins and a draw.
Rhinos could not use injuries as an excuse for yet another close defeat – their eighth of the year by a converted try or less.
Danny McGuire had missed the previous two games due to the rib injury he suffered last in the Challenge Cup final, three weeks ago, but returned at scrum-half.
With Joel Moon still suspended, McGuire’s comeback allowed Liam Sutcliffe to switch into the centres, taking over from Jimmy Keinhorst.
Rob Burrow was among the substitutes after sitting out the two games since the Cup final due to a persistent groin problem. Also in the side for the first time since Wembley was prop Ian Kirke, who came in on the bench.
He wasn’t named in Rhinos’ initial 19-man squad, but got a call-up when Keinhorst was ruled out due to a knee problem suffered in last week’s defeat at Wigan.
Ryan Bailey was also sidelined, which meant a start in the front-row for Brad Singleton.
The first 14 minutes were poor, with both teams struggling to complete a set, but then a flurry of action led to Hull taking the lead.
Rhinos should have gone ahead. Kevin Sinfield’s kick to the corner was batted back by Ryan Hall to Carl Ablett and he turned the ball inside and Jordan Rankin intercepted.
Hull immediately turned the ball over to Leeds and only a terrific tackle by Aaron Heremaia kept Kallum Watkins out.
Then Tom Briscoe – who got the expected jeers from the home crowd on his first return to KC Stadium as a Leeds player – tried to barge over from acting-half, but was shoved into touch.
At the end of the next set Zak Hardaker did well to keep Richard Horne’s attempted 40-20 kick in play.
But then the full-back spilled the ball 15 metres out as he tried to clear his lines and Jack Logan picked up to put Tom Lineham over.
As at Wigan seven days earlier, Hardaker was booed throughout the game by some of the home fans.
Which – assuming it was in response to the investigation into comments he is alleged to have made to an opponent – is quite ironic, considering the abuse some Leeds players, Iestyn Harris in particular, have been subjected to on trips to Hull over the years. Both sides lined up to give Horne a guard of honour on to the pitch ahead of his final appearance for Hull, after a first team career which began away to Leeds in 1999.
He almost enjoyed a fairytale moment early in the second quarter, when he intercepted Paul Aiton’s pass a few metres from his own line with clear country ahead.
A try would have brought the house down, but Ablett pooped the party by chasing back to bring the scrum-half to ground just short.
The game degenerated again afterwards, the two teams turning the ball over to each other with some of the most basic errors, that tedium only being interrupted by referee Tim Roby’s whistle, blasts from which at least kept everyone awake.
It looked like Hull would take their 4-0 advantage into the break, but with four minutes of the half remaining Burrow, who had just come on, exploited the blindside from acting-half and Ablett had the power to crash over.
That was the second-rower’s sixth try in just nine appearances for Leeds at KC Stadium. Sinfield added the extras and Leeds seemed to gain total control.
They could have been over again, after Burrow split the defence from dummy-half and found McGuire in support, but Rankin made a try-saving tackle.
Sinfield then grubbered through, Jamie Jones-Buchanan hacked on and the defence conceded a drop out, from which Sinfield – off a smart pass by Burrow – landed an opportunist one-pointer as the hooter sounded.
Rhinos’ purple patch continued four minutes into the second period when Kallum Watkins allowed a kick to bounce 20 metres from his own line, then picked up and scorched deep into Hull territory before supplying McGuire, who finished in excellent fashion for his 11th try of the season.
Sinfield added the extras, but missed with a penalty shot soon afterwards following a high shot by Horne on Burrow.
In the set from the subsequent drop out McGuire’s pass sent Mitch Achurch into a huge gap with Burrow in support, but the big man fired his pass straight at Rankin.
Hull’s luck ran out on 56 minutes when Briscoe’s kick return started an attack which ended with Hall powering over after a pass was batted on by Sutcliffe, Sinfield adding the extras from the touchline. The home side hadn’t been in Leeds territory in the third quarter, but struck back with a try out of nothing at the start of the fourth, Kirk Yeaman and Gareth Ellis both hacking on before the latter won the race to touch down. In contrast to the Hull fans’ treatment of Briscoe, Rhinos’ support greeted the try with chants of “there’s only one Gareth Ellis”.
The home side scored again in the next set, after an initial break by Yeaman, when Ellis’ pass was finished on the last by Fetuli Talanoa, though Rankin missed with his third conversion attempt.
That left Leeds defending a seven-point lead with 15 minutes to go and Hull were over again almost immediately, but Heremaia’s touchdown was ruled out for an off-the-ball shove on Sinfield.
Leeds, though, spilled the ball from the penalty and Hull countered for Logan to go over from Dean Hadley’s pass.
Rankin converted to cut the gap to one point and Hull sealed it with four minutes left when Logan got over in the set from a Hall knock-on.
St Helens were once more denied a chance to wrap up the League Leaders’ Shield after going down to a 17-16 defeat in a nail-biting clash at Huddersfield Giants, with Leroy Cudjoe’s late drop goal winning the match.