TWO POINTS on the league table was the most Leeds Rhinos could take from their scrappy and at times torrid win at Widnes Vikings.
Leeds led 10-0 after 13 minutes and that proved the final margin, but they were made to work unexpectedly hard by a fired-up Widnes side playing their third game in 10 days, following successive heavy defeats.
Rhinos could also be encouraged by Paul Aiton’s return after 12 weeks on the sidelines due to illness and Danny McGuire made a good impact on his comeback, following a fortnight out with a calf strain.
Aiton had a poor first spell, but was very influential in the second period when Rhinos overturned a 16-10 interval deficit to win 38-28.
Widnes scored a couple of late tries when the game had gone, but their total – and tally of five tries – was the most conceded by Leeds this year.
Leeds were good in patches, but dire in others and they will need a big improvement in most areas as the business end of the season approaches.
The opening to the match was like a game of attack and defence in training. Widnes had three sets in the opening 16 minutes, knocking on early in the count twice and kicking out on the full on the other occasion.
Rhinos forced two goal line drop-outs, received two penalties and also got the feed at several scrums after Widnes knocked the ball down.
By the time Widnes completed a set for the first time, they were 10-0 behind.
Rhinos took a third minute lead when Kallum Watkins powered over at the corner after a 20-metre scrum.
They were close to scoring again after Widnes’ re-start went out on the full, but full-back Rhys Hanbury made a superb try-saving tackle on Carl Ablett.
Leeds added a second try on 13 as Kevin Sinfield – who was probably their best player overall – fed McGuire, who played a one-two with Ben Jones-Bishop before scooting between the posts.
Sinfield seemed to be taken out after his pass and Macgraff Leuluai was placed on report.
With the skipper receiving treatment and neither Rob Burrow nor Zak Hardaker in the team, McGuire – who has never kicked a goal for Leeds – was keen to take the conversion.
Eventually, though, Sinfield recovered and booted the first of his five goals. Ablett – following a ban – was also back in the starting line-up for the first time in three games.
Perhaps due to fears over Widnes’ plastic pitch, Rhinos’ veteran starting props Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Peacock were both rested, with Brad Singleton and Ryan Bailey starting the game either side of Robbie Ward.
Like Aiton, Jamie Jones-Buchanan (torn biceps) came into the team among the substitutes after a three-month lay-off.
Chris Clarkson missed out due to an Achilles problem, Stevie Ward was rested and Luke Briscoe left out after his debut the previous week.
It was a much stronger team than Leeds have fielded in recent weeks, which made the way they collapsed in the second quarter all the more surprising.
Widnes got in Leeds’ half for the first time on 21 minutes –thanks to a penalty – and they scored from it as Hanbury’s inside pass put Chris Dean in and Patrick Ah Van added the extras.
One of Aiton’s first acts, after coming on in the 22nd minute, was to knock on at a play-the-ball.
He was penalised for dissent, then marched another 10 metres and in the resulting set Ryan Hall lost Danny Craven’s cross kick, presenting Hanbury with an easy touchdown, improved by Ah Van.
On the stroke of half-time, McGuire dummied his way to the Widnes line and offloaded to Hall, who simply had to catch the ball and touch down.
He dropped it.
Widnes went up field in the next set, the hooter sounded and Joe Mellor – playing for the first time since dislocating a shoulder in Vikings’ defeat at Leeds in March – kicked to the corner and Ah Van touched down, though he could not convert.
Leeds had a touchdown disallowed at the start of the second half, when McGuire’s long pass to Hall was ruled forward, but three penalties led to two tries to edge the visitors back in front.
First Sinfield went in from McGuire’s short pass and then Liam Sutcliffe dummied over to make it 22-16 on 51.
Then, eleven minutes later, Aiton’s accurate pass sent Hall away and he drew the cover before passing on to Tom Briscoe, who had come across from the opposite wing.
He had too much pace for the defence and Sinfield’s goal gave Leeds a 12-point advantage.
Aiton grew into the game and was heavily involved in Leeds’ sixth try and McGuire’s second, which made it 32-16 with 13 left.
Grant Gore took advantage of a couple of penalties to go over from acting-half, but Josh Walters’ first senior try – after another encouraging display off the bench - sealed it.
He touched down from Sinfield’s grubber after McGuire had also handled.
The teenager almost added a second, but was held up over the line.
Hall – who tried hard, but made some errors –then knocked on at the corner and Mellor raced the length of the field to cross, with Ah Van’s touchline goal completing the scoring.
The penalty count finished 10-7 in Widnes’ favour (5-3 to Vikings in the first half).
Second-placed Rhinos are back in action on Sunday when they welcome Catalan Dragons to Headingley Carnegie.
Meanwhile, Rhinos under-19s were beaten 20-16 in the curtain-raiser after trailing 20-4 at the break and squandering a host of chances in the second half yesterday.
Billy McDermott, Elliot Minchella and Ash Handley scored Rhinos’ tries and Joe Sanderson also kicked two goals for the cause.
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury, Flynn, Dean, Marsh, Ah Van, Mellor, Craven, Kavanagh, White, Gerrard, Lawton, Allen, Leuluai. Subs (all used) Johnson, Joseph, Isa, Gore.
Leeds Rhinos: Jones-Bishop, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Bailey, R Ward, Singleton, Delaney, Ablett, Sutcliffe. Subs (all used) Kirke, Jones-Buchanan, Aiton, Walters.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).