LEEDS RHINOS will go into the Tetley’s Challenge Cup final on the back of an embarrassing defeat after they became the first team to lose to London Broncos this season.
Even without nine players from their semi-final win over Warrington Wolves eight days earlier, Leeds should have been good enough to get the job done.
They led 24-8 at half-time and 30-8 and 36-14 in the second period, but then went totally to pieces as London scored 26 unanswered points to register one of the unlikeliest victories of the summer era.
It’s hard to begrudge Broncos their victory after such a miserable season – which had seen them lose their previous 24 competitive games – but the defeat has cost Leeds any realistic chance of finishing top of the table.
It will be worth it if Leeds get their hands on the Challenge Cup in five days’ time, but even so – and given the strength of the team they fielded – it was a humiliating result.
Not for the first time this year, Leeds lost on goal kicks. Both teams scored seven tries, but stand-in captain Zak Hardaker missed with two from three attempts, while Liam Sutcliffe landed three out of four. London’s Josh Drinkwater fluffed the first two, but landed his next six attempts.
Leeds were without nine members of their winning semi-final team from eight days earlier and gave debuts to centre Ash Handley (19), scrum-half Ben White (18) and 17-year-old Ashton Golding, a substitute who was on the bench.
Nineteen-year-old Liam Sutcliffe and Josh Walters were also in the starting side, with Elliot Minchella (18) among the substitutes.
Ryan Bailey and Mitch Achurch were the only players over 30 and Leeds’ team had an average age of 22.8.
Their performance was pretty much exactly what would have been expected pre-game, from a line-up like this.
They scored some nice tries and showed a great deal of enthusiasm, but there were some silly errors, they struggled to maintain their concentration and they couldn’t stem the tide once London got on the front foot.
It’s clear that while Leeds do have talent coming through the ranks, they aren’t ready to be thrown into action together.
Rhinos have now managed the notable feat of losing to both relegated teams in successive Super League games, after another under-strength side were beaten by Bradford Bulls at the start of the month.
Rhinos went ahead in the second minute, after Kieran Dixon – playing his first game for London since suffering a serious knee injury on England Knights duty last October – knocked on with his first touch.
That gave Leeds a decent attacking position 20 metres out and they scored with ease when Sutcliffe’s long pass was finished by Kallum Watkins, after good work by Walters in the build-up.
In the set from the re-start Rhinos were gifted ground by a high shot on Stevie Ward and the set ended with Hardaker putting Walters over from close-range.
A second high shot on Ward led to Rhinos’ third touchdown, after just 12 minutes.
Mitch Achurch and Hardaker worked the ball to Watkins and he rampaged down the right before passing inside to the supporting Sutcliffe, who breezed over.
At that stage Rhinos were cruising, 14-0 up, but Leeds shot themselves in the foot twice, allowing the hosts , who were as surprised as anyone, to score back-to-back tries.
A forward pass set up field position for Jordan Atkins to go over at the corner, the re-start was booted dead and in the subsequent set Joe Keyes touched down in the same spot, off a very smart kick by Drinkwater.
Achurch capped a strong half by powering over from Sutcliffe’s pass, then Paul Aiton intercepted in Leeds’ half and slipped the ball to Hardaker, who was pulled down, got up and eased over to make it 24-8 at the break.
Aiton did most of the leg work for Rhinos’ sixth try, three minutes after the break. Sutcliffe scored it, after Brad Singleton, Ward and Watkins had also handled.
Dixon got a comeback try and moments later Mike McMeeken went over and suddenly the gap was down to 10 points. Leeds, though, responded with one of the season’s more bizarre tries.
For no apparent reason, second-rower Achurch popped up on the right wing, collected Watkins pass and showed remarkable pace to tear over from well inside his own half.
Yet again London refused to go away – or Leeds switched off.
Or, perhaps it was a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, Rhinos barely got their hands on the ball after that and London scored 26 unanswered points to snatch the game.
Scott Moore crossed with a quarter of the game left.
The gap was down to four points with 10 minutes left when Keyes went over from close-range and then he stepped through a gap to complete his hat-trick in the next set, with the conversion edging London Broncos 38-36 ahead.
Drinkwater kicked a penalty, with a couple of minutes left, but Leeds almost snatched it after the hooter. Watkins, who was comfortably Leeds Rhinos’ best player by a country mile, surged down the wing and dived over at the corner, but the touch judge spotted a foot in touch – and that was game-over.
London Broncos: Farrar, Dixon, Mataitonga, Solomona, Atkins, Drinkwater, Keyes, Slyney, Moore, Wallace, Vea, McMeeken, Cook. Subs (all used) Krasniqi, Griffin, Dollapi, Thomas.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, T Briscoe, Watkins, handley, Hall, Sutcliffe, White, Singleton, Aiton, Bailey, S Ward, Achurch, Walters. Subs (all used) Kirke, Clarkson, Minchella, Golding.
Referee: Tim Roby (Preston).