BIG forward Ali Lauitiiti had the last laugh as Leeds Rhinos got out of jail in Wrexham last night.
Inability to pronounce Lauitiiti’s surname reduced Crusaders’ ground announcer to a fit of giggles before the game began.
Eighty dire minutes later it must have been seared into his brain as the substitute back-rower’s late touchdown saw Leeds snatch an undeserved 12-7 win.
Five days after producing their best performance of the season, Leeds Rhinos came up with a performance which fell way below that standard.
The game was as drab as the north Wales weather.
For the second successive game, it rained throughout, but whereas Leeds had revelled in the wet five days earlier, this time they failed to cope with difficult conditions.
Credit to Crusaders’ gritty defence, but Leeds should be much, much better than this. For much of the game they seemed to be in a daze.
In front of a miserable – literally in the Leeds fans’ case – crowd of just over 3,000, Rhinos trailed 4-0 at half-time and went another two behind in the third quarter.
They levelled with just 11 minutes left, but a drop goal six minutes from time seemed to have sealed a famous win for Iestyn Harris’ men, only for Lauitiiti to break their hearts.
Though Lauitiiti created a good impression off the bench, nobody played well for Leeds, who played 68 minutes of really poor rugby and only got going at the death.
Crusaders would have deserved at least a point.
They were better than Rhinos, who made a host of mistakes, didn’t get their kicking game going and took some glaring wrong options – but had key men to pull the game from the fire.
Fatigue may have been a factor in Rhinos’ flat performance. Ryan Hall, Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leuluai and Danny Buderus were all playing their third game in eight days, with Sinfield and Hall on the field for every minute.
Rhinos’ only personnel change saw Lauitiiti return in place of Carl Ablett, who was rested.
Leuluai and ex-Crusader Weller Hauraki were back in the starting line-up, with Ryan Bailey on the bench, alongside Lauitiiti.
It’s difficult to remember a game when Rhinos created so few chances, despite a decent share of possession.
They had two opportunities in the first period.
Hauraki almost forced his way over, but knocked-on before Danny McGuire got the ball down, then in the final seconds McGuire twice kicked ahead, but Vince Mellars slid across to keep the hosts’ line intact.
In the second, played went close on several occasions, but – until the final stages – the home defence was rarely troubled as Leeds totally lacked ideas.
Crusaders’ only try came after nine minutes, when Michael Witt’s excellent pass sent Peter Lupton – a former Rhinos academy player – through a big gap.
One touch judge thought Witt’s conversion attempt had succeeded and the other didn’t, referee Ben Thaler waving it away.
That came in a set after Lee Smith had knocked on from Brent Webb’s long pass.
Earlier Crusaders had tapped a penalty in front of the posts during a huge spell pressure which began when Lincoln Withers landed a smart 40-20 early in the tackle count.
Jason Chan held up over the line by Rob Burrow, Hall and Jamie Jones-Buchanan. Chan – a target for Leeds last year, before they signed Hauraki instead – had a big game for the Welsh outfit and Jordan Tansey also showed up well against his former club.
Three times in successive sets in the opening quarter Crusaders lost possession near their own line, but Rhinos couldn’t take advantage.
A couple of poor kicks let Crusaders off lightly and then Burrow was penalised for crossing early in the count, close to the line.
With Sinfield failing to find touch with a penalty, it was beginning to look like one of those nights for Rhinos, who were tough in the tackle, but lacked any sort of spark with the ball.
The interval deficit could have been worse for Leeds as Jarrod Sammut got over the line four minutes before the break, but failed to touch down.
Rhinos failed to take advantage when Sinfield landed a tremendous 40-20 in the first set after the interval, then again after successive penalties – both for fouls on Burrow – near the Welsh line.
Somebody had to wake the scoreboard operator 14 minutes into the second period when Webb was penalised in possession for use of a forearm on Chan and Witt landed the subsequent kick.
With 15 minutes left Leeds were awarded five straight penalties, but again failed to trouble the Welsh rearguard.
At that stage it looked like the game could be up, but a tried and tested combination pulled Rhinos out of the mire, McGuire dashing over from Peacock’s offload, with Sinfield adding the extras to level the scores.
That was McGuire’s 193rd try for Rhinos, equalling Les Dyl in fifth spot on the club’s all-time list.
Rhinos looked to have blown it when a penalty for offside piggy-backed Crusaders up field and Witt landed a well-taken drop goal.
That looked like being enough, but a Jordan James knock-on gave Rhinos a lifeline and Lauitiiti twisted over for a face-saving try, improved by his skipper.
The penalty count was shared 10-10.
Crusaders: Tansey, Reardon, Martin, Thomas, Mellars, Witt, White, Bryant, Withers, O’Hara, Winterstein, Chan, Lupton. Subs (all used) Johnson, Sammut, Flower, James.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Hardaker, Delaney, Smith, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Hauraki, Sinfield. Subs (all used) Lauitiiti, Buderus, Bailey, Kirke.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).