IT WASN’T pretty, but it was gutsy as Leeds Rhinos toughed out a precious 22-18 win at Salford Red Devils last night.
The victory kept alive Rhinos’ hopes of claiming the league leaders’ shield, but it was a tense encounter and there could have been few complaints had Salford – who haven’t beaten Leeds at home in Super League – snatched it at the end.
Leeds have been involved in a remarkable number of tight games and it will boost their confidence to have come through this one on top.
Leeds scored some good tries and defended strongly for spells, but they put themselves under pressure with too many errors.
A platform was laid when they led by six early in the second-quarter and by 10 points 14 minutes after the break, but Salford pulled a try back and applied massive pressure after that.
Rhinos went in at the break level for the third successive game, Salford scoring at the start and end of the half and Leeds bagging a couple of tries in the middle.
Leeds made the better start after half-time, but they never looked comfortable and only some desperate last-ditch tackling maintained their advantage – the highlight being a joint effort by Zak Hardaker and Ryan Hall on Junior Sa’u.
With Kevin Sinfield beginning his two-match ban, Brian McDermott sprung a surprise by partnering Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow in the halves.
Burrow had a fine game for Leeds and McGuire also enjoyed some good moments.
Brett Delaney (thigh), Mitch Achurch (knee) and Ryan Bailey were also out from the team which drew with Castleford Tigers last week.
Josh Walters returned to the starting line-up, in the second-row and Liam Sutcliffe, Brad Singleton and Elliot Minchella – who made a try scoring debut at the same ground last August –were all recalled among the substitutes.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan got his first start since his long injury lay-off and put in a towering effort.
Stevie Ward dropped to the bench and made an instant impact, though he didn’t get into the action until mid-way through the third quarter.
Burrow made the first clean break, on the final tackle. Paul Aiton was in support, but Rangi Chase made the tackle and Harrison Hansen intercepted the hooker’s offload.
The opening try came when Sa’u touched down from home debutant Kevin Locke’s smart kick on the last, after 13 minutes.
Leeds continued to drop the ball, but when they held on to it they scored twice in three minutes to go ahead.
Their opener came on 19, after their first spell of sustained pressure. Salford showed how much they have improved with some excellent defence to keep Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett and Kallum Watkins out, but then McGuire grubbered through on the last and Hardaker made a diving touchdown.
Hardaker converted and Leeds scored again at the set from the re-start. A long-range move began when Aiton found Watkins and his pass sent Tom Briscoe on a run down the right flank, before he turned the ball inside for the centre – a former Salford ball boy – to cross. Hardaker improved again.
Rhinos had an escape eight minutes before the interval. Hall knocked on near the Reds line and Locke picked up and beat Ablett and McGuire before being nailed by Hardaker.
Salford could still have made the opportunity count, but Silverwood ruled Steve Rapira’s pass which put Theo Fages over was forward.
Leeds got the benefit of one or two decisions, particularly in the second half, but referee Richard Silverwood had a decent game.
Salford deserved to be level at the break and they were. On 38 a knock-on by Hall, from Chase’s bomb, gave the hosts a platform, a penalty kept the pressure on, Chase kicked towards the foot of a post and Fages, who is at least as good value as some of Salford’s much more expensive recruits, read it well to run through gather and touch down, Griffin converting as the hooter sounded.
Salford lost Locke, their star recruit, to injury and Niall Evalds took over at full-back. He spilled McGuire’s bomb at the start of the second half and following the scrum, close to the line, Ablett powered over after Burrow and McGuire had handled. Hardaker added his third goal to give Leeds a six-point advantage for the second time.
That was increased to 10 with 26 minutes left. McGuire’s defence-splitting pass – which looked a shade forward – to Sutcliffe got Leeds on the front foot and then Jamie Peacock and Hardaker worked the ball to Ward, who threw a dummy and used some nice footwork to slice through.
There was no goal.
Salford did most of the pressing after that, with Greg Johnson – the former Batley flier – looking particularly dangerous from close to his own line.
Hardaker made a brilliant tackle to deny Evalds after a fantastic take and weaving run from Burrow’s bomb.
Leeds scrambled well, but a knock-on at the end of the set kept the pressure on and Salford got themselves right back in the game as Chase’s pass found Jordan Walne and the defence dissolved as he sprinted between the posts. Griffin’s third goal cut the gap to four points with a quarter of the game left.
Hall made a try-saver on a rampaging Walne moments later, before the Salford substitute spilled Tony Puletua’s pass in front of the posts a few metres out.
With 14 minutes left Hansen was penalised for interference on Peacock, but Hardaker pushed his 40-metre penalty attempt wide.
With eight minutes left the dangerous Sa’u almost got over, but lost the ball at the corner in a tremendous joint tackle by Hardaker and Hall.
With 70 seconds left a Sutcliffe knock-on gave Salford a last shot. Walters made a superb tackle on Adrian Morley – in possibly his final game against Leeds – and then Briscoe showed great nerve to ground Chase’s kick in-goal as Rhinos just held on.
The penalty count finished eight-five to Leeds (four-three in Salford’s favour in the opening half).
Salford are clearly improving under ex-Leeds captain Iestyn Harris and a 5,000 crowd created a vibrant, hostile atmosphere –though some of the abuse and foul language directed at the visitors came from a bygone age.
St Helens stayed on top of First Utilities Super League after a 44-22 victory over play-off hopefuls Widnes Vikings at Langtree Park. Tom Makinson scored a hat-trick of tries, with Mose Masoe crossing twice.