THOUGH NOT at their best, Leeds Rhinos were still too good for a resilient London Broncos at a steamy Twickenham Stoop last night.
Rhinos were generally in command, but endured some anxious moments before their nerves were settled by Paul McShane’s introduction off the substitutes’ bench in the second half.
The hooker crossed twice in five minutes in a hard-fought 30-18 win which boosts Leeds’ prospects of a top-four finish.
London were 12-1 with the bookies to win the game, but it was a much more entertaining contest than expected given their position at the foot of the table.
One point of view would be that Rhinos made hard work of it. They were the better team and did most of the pressing, but could never quite shake London off.
On the other hand, Broncos deserve some credit. They obviously weren’t going to play as badly as they did in the 70-0 Challenge Cup semi-final humiliation by Wigan Warriors five days earlier.
Inspired by short-term signing Jamie Soward - who is far too good for the team he’s playing in - they turned in a really spirited effort and kept going to the last, though it never looked like being their night.
It was billed as Kevin Sinfield’s stage as the Leeds skipper made his 500th career appearance.
He converted all five of the visitors’ tries in a typically solid display, again beginning at hooker.
As is normal at the moment, Rhinos suffered a couple of injury concerns.
Brett Delaney - who has had more than his fair share of fitness worries this year - hobbled off early in the second half.
And as he was leaving the field, young Alex Foster paid for his enthusiasm in a nasty incident when he collided with a post.
The substitute back-rower kicked ahead, chased and then - as he attempted to tackle Luke Dorn - smashed into metalwork with such force the post-protector came off.
He needed lengthy treatment from doctor Paul Lanfear before being able to walk off, though groggily.
Neither returned, reducing Leeds to 16 available players for the final half an hour in sapping 29 degree heat.
Prop Jamie Peacock opened the scoring after five minutes, storming over from 13 metres out after Ryan Hall had palmed Rob Burrow’s kick into the air, caught it and offloaded.
Sinfield converted and then broke up the middle in the next set before finding Burrow, but his pass to the left was forward.
Peacock came to Leeds’ rescue with a terrific tackle on Soward and then Zak Hardaker got Tommy Lee, after he had snaffled the ball when Sinfield’s pass rebounded off Kylie Leuluai.
But Leeds went further in front on 15 minutes, after they ran a penalty following Mike McMeeken’s foul on Burrow.
Burrow and Rob Sutcliffe linked across the line to Kallum Watkins and his wonderful flicked pass picked out Ben Jones-Bishop, who produced a world class finish at the corner.
Watkins returned at centre, after one match out due to an ankle problem, so Hardaker reverted to full-back, Jones-Bishop switched to the wing and James Duckworth dropped out.
Leuluai started at prop, in place of Brad Singleton - who apparently has been carrying a hamstring injury - and McShane came into the 17 on the bench.
Ryan Bailey’s damaged thumb hadn’t healed sufficiently for him to feature, but he was involved as a water carrier.
It was a mistake by Leuluai, straight after Jones-Bishop’s try, which gave London a way back into the game, Luke Dorn - being linked with a return to Castleford Tigers next year - stepping past Hardaker and Brett Delaney, with Soward adding the extras.
Teenager Foster was introduced on 28 minutes and scored his first Super League try with his first touch in the game.
It came off good work down Rhinos’ right side.
Hardaker set Watkins up and he found Jones-Bishop, the winger skinning Dan Sarginson before turning the ball inside to Foster, who had popped up in support.
Sinfield’s third goal made it 18-6 and that was the interval score, though Leeds had a huge let off just before the break.
Soward showed his NRL clash, chipping over the defence and regathering and it looked like a certain try as he passed wide to an unmarked Ryan Shaw, but the centre - on loan from Swinton Lions - dropped the ball with the line begging.
Hardaker and Peacock prevented Olsi Krasniqi getting the ball down at the start of the second period, but in the same set London cut the gap through Sarginson, who scythed through off an excellent pass by Soward, who added the extras.
McShane had to wait on the bench until Foster after around 50 minutes.
He probably felt he had a point to prove after being sent to Hunslet and he did that with Leeds’ fourth try on 55.
Carl Ablett - who got through a huge amount of work - was hauled down just short on the fifth and McShane picked up at acting-half, created a gap with an outrageous dummy and dived through.
Five minutes later a kick by - of all people - Peacock forced a repeat set close to the line and McShane stepped through again, leaving a trail of defenders in his wake.
Soon after that, a Burrow pass was intercepted by Matt Cook - fortunately a prop - and McShane made the tackle.
Ben Fisher went over for a try, again converted by Soward, with 14 minutes left.
Ryan Hall had a touchdown, which would have sealed it, ruled out by video referee Steve Ganson for an obstruction soon afterwards, and Leeds were the side pressing at the end.
Referee Tim Roby handled the game well. The penalty count finished 5-4 in Leeds’ favour (4-2 to Leeds in the first half).
There was a minute’s silence before the game in memory of Graham Murray, the man who coached Rhinos to victory over London in the 1999 Challenge Cup final.
The Leeds fans - and a respectable number of them made the Thursday trip - marked his death last Sunday with chants of “Graham Murray’s Barmy Army”.
Even with the travelling support, the crowd of 2,377 was the lowest for a Super League match involving Leeds.
Rhinos return to action at Salford City Reds next Friday evening with Broncos hoping to stop the rot at St Helens who they also visit on Friday evening.