Leeds Rhinos nostalgia: Hardaker’s hat-trick keeps Giants at bay

Zak Hardaker.

Zak Hardaker.

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FRIDAY’S OPPONENTS Huddersfield Giants have had the upper hand in recent matches against Leeds Rhinos.

Giants, last year’s Super League leaders, have won the last five meetings between the sides in all competitions – and none of them has been particularly close.

Leeds’ most recent victory, though, was a huge one in terms of what it meant to the Headingley club. On September 23, 2011, Rhinos visited the Giants for a make-or-break Super League elimination semi-final.

Huddersfield had finished fourth in the table, one place and a point ahead of Leeds.

That earned them the booby prize of a trip to league leaders Warrington Wolves in the opening round of the play-offs, with the losers knowing they would have the second chance a week later.

Leeds were thrown straight into knockout action, beating visitors Hull in their opening sudden-death tie, while Giants suffered a 47-0 drubbing at HJ Stadium.

Rhinos had won 31-24 at Huddersfield in the sides’ final league game a couple of weeks before the play-offs rematch and travelled in confident mood, backed by most of the 7,872 crowd.

Zak Hardaker’s hat-trick proved to be the headline grabber in a 34-28 win which kept Leeds’ season alive and ended Giants’.

Ben Jones-Bishop got the visitors up and running with his 13th try of the season, before back-to-back touchdowns by Hardaker – playing in the centres – saw Rhinos race into a 16-0 lead. Scott Grix’s try gave Giants hope and they trailed only 16-6 at the interval.

When Dale Ferguson crossed to cut the gap to four points soon afterwards, Rhinos’ nerves were jangling.

But then Leeds took control, with a dazzling spell of dominant rugby, running in three touchdowns in four electrifying minutes.

First Brent Webb went over (54), then Hardaker completed his hat-trick (56) and Webb crossed again (58) to make it 34-12, Kevin Sinfield having landed five goals.

At that stage Leeds looked to be cruising through to the qualifying semi-final stage, but the momentum of the game swung again and Giants almost pulled off a remarkable recovery.

David Fa’alogo’s try on 70 minutes seemed a consolation, but Grix went in for his second three minutes later and when Fa’alogo touched down again two minutes after that –Danny Brough having kicked four goals – Leeds led by only six points with five minutes left.

Tension was at boiling point, but Rhinos dug in and saw the game out to keep their Old Trafford hopes alive.

Famously, Leeds went on to win at Warrington Wolves the following week and became the first team from outside the top-three in the table to lift the title with a Grand Final triumph over St Helens.

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