THE gap between Leeds Rhinos and Engage Super League’s top four was exposed yet again as St Helens inflicted a comprehensive 42-16 thrashing at Stobart Stadium last night.
Rhinos have now lost five times in six meetings with top-four clubs and the other game was a home draw, against champions Wigan Warriors.
Leeds played well in a high-quality, close first half, but they collapsed in horrific fashion in the third quarter as Saints were allowed to do more or less as they pleased.
Rhinos did bag a couple of late tries, but they did little to mask another hugely disappointing night for Leeds.
Despite coach Brian McDermott’s pre-match warnings about the importance of discipline, Rhinos were twice penalised for dissent, which isn’t acceptable.
Rhinos couldn’t use injuries as an excuse for their second successive defeat.
They fielded 12 of their first 13 in squad number terms, the exception being Zak Hardaker in for long-term casualty Keith Senior.
Brent Webb – with his right leg heavily strapped – returned after a three-match absence at full-back and Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow started together at half-back for the first time since last September, allowing Kevin Sinfield to switch to loose-forward.
McGuire, who has had so much recent bad luck, had an injury scare mid-way through the first half, when he collided – knee on knee – with Saints’ Scott Moore.
He collapsed in obvious pain, but carried on after treatment, though he was replaced on the hour after Saints’ fifth try made it 30-4.
Paul McShane was back on the bench, with Jay Pitts and Ian Kirke dropping out from the team which lost to Warrington last week.
Rhinos led 4-0 early in the second quarter, through two Sinfield goals, but Saints just about deserved their 6-4 interval lead.
The game was over as a contest inside the third quarter as they ran in four more touchdowns and for a while the scoreline looked as though it could become really embarrassing.
Leeds’ first points came after just four minutes, following interference by Jon Wilkin on Carl Ablett, who was back in the second-row after last week’s stint at centre.
And the captain doubled Rhinos’ advantage in similar fashion after Saints’ markers were caught not square, from Ablett’s break, which was carried on by McShane.
Rhinos had chances at the start and end of the opening half, but didn’t threaten after the interval until it was far too late.
On nine minutes Lee Smith got over the line from Danny Buderus’ pass, but was crashed into touch in goal by Lee Gaskell, spilling the ball in the process – as spotted by video referee Steve Ganson.
Later Hauraki lost the ball a few metres out, Tommy Makinson just managed to scramble a McShane kick dead and then McShane broke clear near the line with Sinfield in support, but James Roby intercepted the pass, as referee Phil Bentham inadvertently got in the way.
Rhinos’ first touchdown came 12 minutes from time when Jamie Jones-Buchanan finished strongly from Brett Delaney’s offload and three minutes later they went blind from a scrum close out and Webb put Smith in, Sinfield converting both.
Ganson ruled against Saints on 17 minutes when – after Gaskell’s 40-20 – the same player kicked in goal, but Michael Shenton failed to get the ball down at full-stretch.
In contrast to the second period, Rhinos’ goal line defence was exceptional in the first half and it had to be as they gifted Saints some good attacking positions.
Delaney was penalised for a second effort and then marched 10 metres for dissent, then Smith’s knock on put Leeds back under pressure, but Ryan Hall barged Jonny Lomax into touch near the line.
Webb kept Rhinos’ line intact mid-way through the half, chasing back to ankle tap James Roby 20 metres out when the hooker seemed a certain scorer, breaking from a scrum deep in Leeds territory.
But after the second goal, McShane’s forward pass from acting-half was spotted by Bentham, who then penalised Delaney on the Leeds line and in the subsequent set Roby put James Graham over and Jamie Foster landed the first of his seven conversions.
The second half was largely one-way traffic, from the third minute when Saints increased their advantage after Webb spilled the ball behind his own line to concede a drop out.
Terrific handling ended with Lomax offloading out of Peacock’s tackle to put Roby over.
On 52 minutes Sinfield chipped a kick straight at Francis Meli 40 metres from the Saints line and the big winger powered away to score untouched.
Rhinos were still just about in the contest, but hope was extinguished five minutes later when Lomax touched down from Meli’s pass.
Sinfield’s re-start didn’t go 10 metres and in the set from the penalty Sia Soliola’s offload was finished by Moore.
Saints’ sixth try came with 15 minutes left when Paul Wellens crossed after great work by Gaskell and Wilkin and in the final moments Gaskell intercepted Sinfield’s pass and Foster’s goal completed the scoring.
Bentham had a good game. The penalties were shared 7-7.