TOM BRISCOE scored a hat-trick on his long-awaited return from injury to help Leeds Rhinos secure top spot going into the Super-8s.
Yesterday’s 36-22 victory over Catalans Dragons moved Leeds a point ahead of St Helens at the end of the regular First Utility Super League rounds.
Briscoe, who not played since suffering a shoulder injury – which required surgery – in Leeds’ defeat at Warrington on March 13, looked sharp and finished well, running strongly and creating a try for Brett Delaney.
The winger’s first two touchdowns came off passes from his centre Kallum Watkins, who had an outstanding game.
The England man was almost unstoppable with ball in hand and he scored a stunning long-range try in the second half.
It was a good win for Leeds in tough conditions. Steady rain made handling difficult and players struggled to keep their feet on occasions.
Catalans were up for the game and strengthened by the return from injury of star stand-off Todd Carney and it was anybody’s game when a brilliant try by Scott Dureau cut Leeds’ advantage to two points with half an hour left, but three tries in six minutes secured the points for Rhinos.
They went ahead after five minutes.
Briscoe was involved in the build-up, having a run which led to Zak Hardaker being pulled down just short.
Watkins went blind from acting-half and Briscoe was on hand to take the pass and nip over for a try which Kevin Sinfield converted from the touchline.
Ash Handley, who had played all 19 games during Briscoe’s lay-off, dropped to the under-19s and was among the try scorers in their 22-10 beating of Catalans in the curtain-raiser.
It was a tough call to leave Handley out, but Briscoe’s performance justified the decision. Handley has done well, but at 19, dropping down a level won’t do him any harm and Leeds’ coaching staff know he can do a job if and when needed.
Joel Moon was sidelined due to an Achilles injury, so Jimmy Keinhorst switched back to centre from the second-row.
Sinfield came back at stand-off after one game out with a shoulder problem and Danny McGuire dropped to a strong bench, though he didn’t get on.
Leeds’ substitutes also included the returning Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who did well considering how little he has played this year, plus Adam Cuthbertson and Mitch Garbutt, who is looking like a good signing.
Jamie Peacock, rested last week, returned at prop in place of Cuthbertson and Brad Singleton stepped up off the bench into the loose-forward role, playing as an extra prop.
Catalans’ errors gave Rhinos a huge amount of possession and territory early on, but the home team failed to take advantage.
They did get over the line again on 16 minutes, but referee James Child ruled Carl Ablett had been held up off Paul Aiton’s pass.
Catalans only carried the ball into Rhinos’ half once in the opening quarter, when left-winger Jordan Sigismeau went clear, but Watkins got back to make the tackle.
Sigismeau had not been due to play, but was called up shortly before kick-off after Louis Anderson withdrew.
Ben Pomeroy switched into the pack and Willie Tonga made his comeback from injury as a centre rather than on the wing.
Hardaker was prominent for Rhinos with some outstanding runs out of defence, but on 22 minutes he lost the ball near his own line and at the end of that set Dureau slid a kick over the line and Tony Gigot ran through to touch down.
Four minutes later the visitors were in front. Ryan Hall knocked-on, a penalty kept Leeds under pressure and Morgan Escare caught Keinhorst flat-footed to dart over from a fine pass by Dureau, whose kick hit a post.
Catalans looked like taking a lead into the break, but Leeds scored back-to-back tries to regain the upper hand.
On 36 minutes Sinfield kicked early in the count and his kick went off Carney into touch.
From the scrum Hardaker and Watkins created some space down the left and Briscoe was on hand to slide in for his second, though Sinfield could not add the extras.
Then, following a penalty, Garbutt stormed over for his first Leeds try, off a pass by Sinfield, whose conversion gave the hosts a 16-10 advantage at the break.
Five minutes into the second half Catalans were penalised for successive high shots, on Brett Delaney and then Rob Burrow and Sinfield took the two from the second, in front of the posts.
The two score gap was back down to one almost immediately as Dureau juggled Carney’s pass before dummying past Hall for a brilliant try, which he also converted.
The move began deep in Catalans’ half and also involved Carney, Pomeroy and Escare.
That was thrilling stuff, but having displayed the best side of their character, Catalans then revealed their darker nature.
Keinhorst got the ball back from the re-start to put Leeds on the attack, but Kylie Leuluai was up-ended in a spear tackle by Jeff Lima.
That sparked a skirmish, but Child ducked out of his responsibility by ticking-off the prop and placing the incident on report, rather than producing a card as he should have done.
Hardaker missed Leeds’ recent trip to Wigan after being sin-binned and then suspended for one match for a dangerous tackle, so where’s the consistency?
Sinfield kicked the penalty and, with their blood up, Leeds hit the gas.
Watkins produced a moment of class, scorching clear from near his own line and holding off Escare’s chase for a stunning solo try.
There was no goal, but Leeds struck again four minutes later when Watkins fed Briscoe and he turned the ball inside to put Brett Delaney, who had a strong game, over.
Sinfield added the extras to make it 30-16.
The restart went out on the full and in the next set the captain grubbered over the line and Briscoe followed up to complete his hat-trick, captain Sinfield again adding the extras.
With 11 minutes left Elliot Whitehead passed off the ground to Krisnan Inu, Child let play continue and Gigot took the final ball to score his second, which Dureau improved to complete the scoring.
Catalans should have had another try when Pomeroy went over, but Carney’s pass was incorrectly ruled forward.
The penalty count finished 10-7 in Rhinos’ favour.
Ref Child didn’t have the best of games.