TEENAGE try machine Zak Hardaker crossed twice as Leeds Rhinos saw off stubborn French resistance at Headingley Carnegie last night.
Hardaker, 19, scored two tries in four minutes in a 30-6 win over Catalan Dragons which extended their winning run to five matches and ended the visitors’ seven-game unbeaten streak.
It was only Hardaker’s second Engage Super League appearance, after he had made a try-scoring debut against St Helens two months ago.
The former Featherstone Rovers flier – fit again after a broken finger – has now scored an incredible 25 tries in only 16 career appearances for his two clubs.
Leeds scored three tries in the final 10 minutes of a dour game to record a win which wasn’t as clear-cut as the scoreline suggests.
Both teams were fully committed and there were some big efforts in defence, but it wasn’t much of a spectacle, with try scoring opportunities at a premium, until Catalans tired and Leeds cut loose late on.
Leeds kept the error count low and they were rarely troubled in defence, though Catalan caught them napping with a kick-and-chase on a couple of occasions and their try – from acting-half – was soft.
Tellingly, Leeds were able to deal with the loss of three players hurt in last weekend’s cup win over Crusaders without the team being significantly weakened.
Hardaker came in on the right-wing with Lee Smith switching to full-back in place of Brent Webb.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, rested for the previous game due top a hamstring problem, was back in the second-row – replacing Chris Clarkson – and Weller Hauraki was recalled to take Danny McGuire’s spot on the bench.
The Catalan line-up was more make-shift, missing a host of key men including Clint Greenshields, Ben Farrar, Scott Dureau, Remi Casty and Daryl Millard.
They had centre Setaimata Sa at stand-off, so lacked attacking options.
That might have given the French side an excuse, but they certainly weren’t in the mood to roll over – signalling their intent in the opening 14 minutes, when they survived four goal-line drop-outs, three of them in succession.
That effort told late on and the visitors also put themselves under pressure with a series of handling errors, but Rhinos struggled to create clear opportunities until the closing stages.
Catalan offered little in attack, other than a 10 minute spell late in the first half, when four successive penalties gave them some field position.
Leeds’ only try of the opening period came on 20 minutes, following a rare clean break.
Carl Ablett sent Jones-Buchanan away and he supplied Ryan Hall. He was run down, but offloaded towards Keith Senior, who was shoved off the ball by Jean-Philippe Baile.
In the set from the penalty Kevin Sinfield’s pass cut out Senior and – with Damian Blanch having come infield to mark the centre – Hall had a walk-in.
Sinfield landed a touchline conversion, but the scoreboard operator wasn’t called into action again for another 32 minutes.
The try was the second time Hall had got the ball down over the Dragons line.
After just 62 seconds he had grubbered ahead and regathered, only for flag waver Tim Roby to spot a foot in touch.
Leeds turned down two easy points following Jason Baitieri’s high shot on Jamie Peacock in front of the Catalan posts, but Dragons went closest to scoring before the interval as Mathias Pala was shoved into touch – by Hardaker and Brett Delaney – a metre out.
Catalan looked a litle more inventive on attack at the start of the second half, but Rhinos doubled their advantage with a route-one touchdown on 52 minutes, after being lifted by the return of the entire starting front-row.
Hooker Danny Buderus was held just short before Jones-Buchanan and Peacock fed Sinfield and his excellent offload was finished by Kylie Leuluai, the skipper also adding the extras.
Senior was held up over the line moments later, then the impressive Hall made a brilliant 70-metre break, before being shoved into touch by Baile and Blanch.
Another try then would have put the game beyond Catalan, but they snatched a lifeline with 18 minutes left when Ian Henderson ducked over from acting-half for a touchdown which was converted by Thomas Bosc.
Leeds moved two scores clear again with 11 minutes left when Sinfield landed a penalty, following an obstruction close to the line and just to the left of the posts.
In the set from the restart Rhinos finally shook off the shackles, running the ball on the last tackle from well within their half.
Buderus, Burrow, Sinfield, Jones-Buchanan and Ablett worked the ball to Delaney and he capped an excellent match by bursting clear before supplying Hardaker, who finished in classic winger’s style at the corner.
Five minutes later Ablett, Buderus and Hall mounted an attack down the right, then Sinfield spotted Hardaker all on his own on the opposite flank, kicked across field for the winger to gather and cross unopposed.
Sinfield converted and then added another goal with the final kick of the game after Burrow had skipped clear for a lovely solo try from 40 metres out.
The penalties were shared 8-8.
Leeds Rhinos: Smith, Hardaker, Delaney, Senior, Hall, Sinfield, Burrow, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Pitts, Ablett. Subs (all used) Kirke, Burgess, Hauraki, McShane.
Catalan Dragons: Stacul, Blanch, Baile, Pala, Vaccari, Sa, Bosc, Ferriol, Henderson, Fakir, Raguin, Mounis, Baitieri. Subs (all used) Gigot, Simon, Martins, Touxagas.
Referee: Robert Hicks (Oldham).
lRhinos Under-18s defeated hosts Featherstone Rovers 32-27 on Thursday night.
Gerry Lee-Pierre led the way to the line, with two tries and Leeds’ other touchdowns were scored by Dan Smith, Marcus Elliott, James Duckworth and Danny Patrice to seal a narrow victory for the visitors.