TEENAGE sensation Zak Hardaker scored his first Super League hat-trick as Leeds Rhinos powered to within 80 minutes of Old Trafford with a thrilling 34-28 win at Huddersfield Giants last night.
The 19-year-old wasn’t expected to play at all for Rhinos’ senior side this season following last autumn’s transfer from Featherstone Rovers, but he has emerged as a prospect of rich talent and real class.
Playing only his fourth game in the centres, last night’s treble took his tally for Leeds to 11 in 13 appearances.
Hardaker crossed twice in Rhinos’ lightning start, then made one and scored another as Leeds battled back off the ropes to stun the hosts with three tries in five minutes midway through the second half.
In an astonishing game, Leeds led 16-0 after 26 minutes; Giants cut the gap to four and then Rhinos rallied to go 34-12 up before three quick-fire tries left the hosts only a converted touchdown adrift with four minutes left.
Rhinos were the better side for most of the game, but had no ball in the final 10 minutes of either half.
When they were good, Leeds were outstanding, but a punishing game will have taken plenty out of their tank ahead of next week’s semi-final.
Rhinos were unchanged from last weekend’s win over Hull and the only difference to the side which won the league match at Huddersfield was Weller Hauraki’s inclusion in the second-row, with Brett Delaney – who had a powerful game – switching to centre for the injured Carl Ablett.
Hauraki had a major role in the opening try, shrugging off Danny Brough and Lee Gilmour before supplying Ben Jones-Bishop, who went in for his 13th try of the season.
Gilmour was hurt in the process and took no further part in the match.
In the set from the re-start a brilliant pass from Chris Clarkson put Brent Webb clear. He stood up the defence before finding Danny McGuire and his looping pass gave Hardaker a walk-in.
It could have been worse for Giants, but a combination of luck and Rhinos’ misjudgments kept Leeds out until 14 minutes before the break.
McGuire’s passes which sent Ryan Hall and then Kylie Leuluai over soon afterwards were both ruled forward by referee Phil Bentham, who was in charge of a Rhinos game for the first time since Wembley.
Scott Grix managed to scramble Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s kick dead just before Hardaker could get there; then McGuire’s weaving run created an overlap, but he hurled the ball past Jones-Bishop into touch.
Webb made two magnificent catches from towering kicks by Brough in the opening quarter. On 24 minutes Sinfield put up a similar effort which Jermaine McGillvary could not take and Hardaker followed up to gather and go over.
Sinfield’s second conversion made it 16-0, but Giants – on the back of five successive penalties – attacked solidly for the rest of the half.
They were initially kept out by some sensational defence as McGuire denied Grix, David Faiumu was held up over the line, Rob Burrow and Clarkson halted David Fa’alogo just short and then Hall nailed Joe Wardle when he looked a certain scorer.
But Rhinos eventually cracked on 37 minutes when Grix stepped through after a Brough break, the scrum-half’s conversion cutting the interval gap to 10 points.
Leeds couldn’t profit from Burrow’s terrific break at the start of the second half and – plus a fumble by Hardaker – that proved costly.
Brough’s grubber kick was spilled by Jones-Bishop as he tried to pick the ball up and following the scrum, Luke Robinson’s pass sent Dale Ferguson through a big gap.
Brough added the extras to make it 16-12.
Leeds had a chance when Jamie Peacock sent Webb dashing away, but he lost the ball in Eorl Crabtree’s desperate tackle.
At the other end Wardle’s break split Leeds’ defence, but Brough dropped the inside pass with a clear run to the line and Rhinos made the most of their let-off, hitting Giants with a triple whammy to turn the game on its head.
From just four points adrift when Brough dropped the ball, they found themselves 22 behind five minutes later.
In the set after the scrum Burrow fed Webb, whose wide pass – which may have been forward – gave Hardaker a run, the centre eluding a couple of tacklers before turning the ball back inside to send Webb between the posts.
In the next set, Danny Buderus carried Rhinos forward, Jones-Buchanan gave the ball to Hardaker from acting-half and the former Featherstone Lions junior did the rest, dazzling footwork and genuine pace carrying him through a mortified defence for his first Rhinos hat-trick.
Then on 58 minutes McGuire ran at the defence and passed to Jones-Buchanan and his short offload – again possibly forward – was finished by Webb. Sinfield converted all three and Leeds were 34-12 to the good at the end of the third quarter.
Jones-Bishop seemed to have scored from McGuire’s kick, but video referee Ian Smith ruled a knock-on and Giants dominated possession to almost snatch the game after that.
Fa’alogo went over in the next set, then two Webb errors set field position for Grix and Fa’alogo to touch down, Brough adding two goals.
It was panic stations, but Leeds held on, Jones-Bishop – who switched to full-back with Webb on the wing – making a stunning catch from a Brough bomb in the final seconds.
The penalties went 7-4 in Giants’ favour – 6-4 in the opening half.
Rhinos fans filled the away end and their support was as good as it has been in the summer era.
Huddersfield Giants: Grix, McGillvary, Wardle, Cudjoe, Lawrence, Brown, Brough, Mason, Robinson, Griffin, Gilmour, Fa’alogo, Horne. Subs (all used): Crabtree, Faiumu, Patrick, Ferguson.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Jones-Bishop, Delaney, Hardaker, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Hauraki, Clarkson. Subs (all used): Burrow, Bailey, Lauitiiti, Kirke.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).