LEEDS MOVED up to second in Betfred Super League and virtually ensured four home games in the Super-8s thanks to a dazzling first half performance at Salford Red Devils.
Rhinos leapfrogged Salford – who began the afternoon in second spot on for and against – and they are now four points clear of fifth-placed Wakefield Trinity with two rounds remaining in the regular season.
Other results went Rhinos’ way earlier in the round and they did their job, getting the game won in a devastating 24-minute spell before the break, when they ran in seven tries.
Pre-match expectations were it would be a close contest and Leeds looked to have their hands full early on.
Salford set off at a blistering pace and were 6-0 up after as many minutes, having already butchered a golden opportunity.
Leeds had a try ruled out on 10 minutes, opened their account four minutes later and then produced their best attacking performance of this season – and for several others – to open a 36-6 interval lead.
With several individuals at the top of their game – including Danny McGuire, Matt Parcell and Adam Cuthbertson – Rhinos played at a pace Salford could not match; they were disciplined and their decision-making and support play was spot on.
Salford improved in the second half and, in hot conditions, Leeds were content to cruise through, being out-scored by three tries to two.
Kallum Watkins, who supported Salford as a youngster, terrorised their left-side until being concussed in a tackle which led to Junior Sa’u being shown a yellow card.
That was potentially a huge blow for Rhinos, who led 22-6 at the time, but they added three more tries against the 12 men in what was the decisive spell of the game. McGuire and Jamie Jones-Buchanan both returned from a one-match ban, but Liam Sutcliffe missed out after suffering a hamstring injury in Leeds’ previous game, against St Helens.
McGuire was inspirational in the halves, alongside Joel Moon, who had another big game.
Rather than switch the ex-Salford man to the centres in place of Sutcliffe, with Jordan Lilley continuing in the starting 13, Rhinos boss Brian McDermott moved Stevie Ward out of the pack and Lilley was on the bench.
After Watkins was hurt Moon moved into the three-quarters and Lilley came on and did a solid job.
Despite being out of position Ward had a terrific game, in attack and defence.
Josh Walters was recalled among the substitutes in place of Jack Ormondroyd, who was an unused replacement last week.
Ashton Golding missed out, again, due to a hamstring problem and Brett Delaney and Brett Ferres remained on the casualty list. Jimmy Keinhorst has recovered from a hand injury and is building his fitness before being recalled.
Former Leeds man Weller Hauraki was held up over the line by Ryan Hall after just two minutes, though he really should have passed.
Just two minutes later Robert Lui’s kick was lost by Tom Briscoe and Josh Wood picked up to go over for the opening try, which Michael Dobson converted.
Leeds’ first sight of Salford’s line came in the 10th minute when Parcell trapped Lui in goal off a smart kick by McGuire.
Carl Ablett reached over after a powerful run, but referee James Child ruled a double-movement.
At the end of the set from the penalty Jack Walker made a world class take from a high kick, but was tackled in the air.
The penalty carried Leeds upfield and Hall raced diagonally over at the corner after terrific interplay between the halves and Ward, who provided the final pass.
Watkins landed a superb conversion from the touchline and Ward split the defence off the restart, leading to another drop-out. Briscoe looked a certain scorer in the set from the restart, but was barged into touch just short by a stunning tackle from Sa’u.
Salford, though, knocked on as they came away from their end following the scrum, Brad Singleton was pulled down just short and on the next play – the last – Parcell and McGuire moved the ball right to Watkins and he put his winger over.
The conversion bounced away off a post, but in the next set Parcell made a break and was supported by Walker. Greg Johnson made a try saving tackle, but then Moon and Jones-Buchanan worked the ball to Watkins, who dummied to Briscoe and nipped through a big gap.
He added the extras and converted again three minutes later after Parcell darted over from acting-half following a penalty near the line.
On 29 minutes Watkins was helped off – after lengthy treatment – and Sau was sin-binned for a high shot.
It was the 12th yellow card produced by Child in his seventh Super League game involving Rhinos this season. At times Leeds have struggled to exploit the extra man, but on this occasion they got it spot on.
At the end of the set from the penalty McGuire kicked to the left corner. Hall batted the ball back and Moon – now in the centres – gathered to go over.
There was no conversion, but Cuthbertson made a break soon afterwards, Parcell was in support and Jones-Buchanan popped up on his shoulder to score.
And two minutes before the break McGuire kicked to the right, into the hole left by Sa’u’s absence and Briscoe read it well to go over for the visitors’ seventh try.
Ben Murdoch-Masila rampaged over at the start of the second half, Dobson converting and a forward pass by Dobson denied what might have been another score – to Johnson – moments later.
Leeds should have sealed it with 21 minutes left when Cuthbertson burst into space near Salford’s line, but Moon spilled the pass with the line begging.
On the hour Salford were caught offside in front of their posts and Lilley took the simple two to make it 38-12.
Dobson crossed from acting-half for a try which he also converted, but Salford turned the ball over from the re-start and Parcell capped a fine game by dropping the ball back for Anthony Mullally to crash over.
Murdoch-Masila’s second try and Dobson’s fourth goal, completed the home scoring seven minutes from time.
In the final seconds Leeds tapped a penalty in front of the posts and Lilley, McGuire and Moon combined to send Walker over for his first Super League try, Lilley’s touchline conversion bringing up the half-century.
The penalty count was 6-2 in Leeds’ favour at half-time and finished 10-7.