WHEN YOU are in a fight for survival winning is all that matters.
Leeds Rhinos got the job done at London Broncos to make it three wins from three in the First Utility Qualifiers, but it was a sub-standard performance.
London, who finished second in the Kingstone Press Championship, made it hard for Leeds for most of a dull 80 minutes, but Rhinos did likewise.
The final 42-28 margin was comfortable enough, but Rhinos trailed twice in the first half and were only eight points ahead until four tries in 15 minutes either side of the break ended any prospect of a shock.
Even then, when Leeds had their foot on London’s throat, they took it off again and the hosts finished the better, making the score respectable by running in three of the game’s final four tries, including two in as many minutes late on.
Most teams would settle for a 14-point win away from home, particularly on an unfamiliar surface – London play on a 3g pitch at Ealing – and against a side who had scored 76 in their previous match.
But there were two main concerns for Rhinos.
The first was an injury to luckless captain Danny McGuire.
He was hurt in a tackle in the first half, hobbled straight off and left the ground with his right foot in a protective boot.
It is his fourth setback of the year and initial indications were he will be facing several weeks on the sidelines.
Leeds have a two-week break to their next fixture, but with only four games remaining there must be a doubt over whether he will play again this season.
The second worry was London’s tally of five tries.
Their 28 points was the highest score against Leeds since Warrington put 52 on them in May.
All of them could have been prevented and, after the improvements Leeds have made in defence in recent weeks, it was a big step backwards.
Rhys Williams pounced on a loose ball to sprint over from long distance for the opener after five minutes. Kallum Watkins had forced a pass on the last after William Barthau’s ankle tap had prevented him from dashing to the line.
After Leeds had taken a 10-6 lead, they conceded a penalty near London’s line and then hooker James Cunningham picked the ball up at acting-half and weaved over untouched.
Midway through the second half Nick Slyney ran a nice angle off Barthau’s pass, but the defence should have done better.
Iliess Macani took advantage for a forward pass which wasn’t spotted by the officials to go over on 76 minutes, showing impressive pace in the process and Elliot Kear – who has a habit of playing well against Leeds – powered through a couple of minutes later, though he should have been stopped.
London played some good rugby at times, though they also shot themselves in the foot with poor errors, for example Jamie Soward failing to find touch with a penalty and then Barthau booting a restart out on the full.
Leeds were too quick and powerful when they moved up through the gears, but Broncos tackled with spirit, particularly when Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Keith Galloway and Mitch Garbutt were all held out when the visitors trailed 6-0.
Rhinos were sloppy for much of the game, but did play some nice stuff. Liam Sutcliffe was Leeds’ best, he was safe under the high ball in difficult conditions – a swirling wind and heavy rain at times – and chimed into the line nicely, scoring a try to go with five conversions from eight attempts.
Jordan Lilley came into the squad to replace calf-injury victim Rob Burrow and was introduced off the bench when McGuire went off.
He scored a try and did some good things.
Joel Moon was moved from the centres to stand-off for the first time as a Leeds player, although he has slotted in there at times during games. Losing McGuire made it harder for him, but he didn’t look out of place. The vacancy in the centres was filled by Jimmy Keinhorst, who got through a huge amount of work in defence.
Anthony Mullally was the other player called into the squad, in place of Brad Singleton, but he got only limited time off the bench.
Lilley and Mullally have also played for Featherstone Rovers this year, on dual-registration, but their inclusion at London means they are now club-tied and ineligible to play for anyone else in 2016.
The same applies to Ashton Golding, who was 18th man, but turned out for Rhinos’ under-19s in a midweek win over Huddersfield Giants.
Broncos’ side included two Leeds lads, ex-Rhinos prop Jamie Thackray and Jack Bussey, who caught the eye at loose-forward.
Hellewell, whose former clubs include Featherstone, had a big game for the hosts. He was involved in a bizarre incident at the start of the first half when Watkins surged over the line, but dithered and lost the ball in the London man’s tackle before he could put it down.
Rhinos might have been more clinical against better opposition, but they have been below-par in successive games now and will need a big improvement when they face Salford Red Devils in their next game.
After two long lay-offs earlier in the year, Tom Briscoe is building some good form. He scored a well-taken hat-trick – all off passes from Watkins – to take his tally to eight in his last two games in the capital following last year’s Challenge Cup final.
His first try opened Leeds’ scoring after 12 minutes, Carl Ablett, McGuire and Brett Ferres combining nicely across the line. Moon and Keinhorst created Sutcliffe’s try to make it 10-6 before London regained the lead, then Briscoe scored a copycat second, the build-up this time involving Jones-Buchanan, McGuire and Sutcliffe.
Leeds only looked really comfortable from the 38th to 53rd minutes, when they stepped on the gas and left London trailing in their slipstream.
James Segeyaro, who Broncos struggled to deal with all afternoon, finished off good work by Lilley and Adam Cuthbertson.
Lilley scored after the defence failed to deal with Ferres’ kick and Mitch Achurch crossed from close range after Soward’s penalty failed to find touch.
Watkins atoned for his earlier miss by crossing from Ferres’ outstanding short pass and Briscoe completed his hat-trick after Slyney’s score, but the way Leeds switched off late on was a worry.
Referee Chris Campbell had a good game. The penalty count was 5-4 in London’s favour, after being 2-1 to Leeds in the first half.