THE STEPS are small but a recovery of sorts is certainly being made.
Dogged Leeds Rhinos secured victory last night, completing consecutive wins for the first time since last year, by wearing Wakefield Trinity Wildcats down amid lashing rain and eventually striding clear.
They may be Super League champions but, after the annus horribilis they have endured so far this term, their fans will gladly accept any sort of success and this was their brightest yet despite the scrappy nature of the game.
Looking at their bench, which included England internationals Brett Ferres and Ryan Hall plus last year’s shortlisted Man of Steel contender Adam Cuthbertson, it was perhaps no surprise they took such a firm control.
Loose forward Brad Singleton, who had scored just once all year previously, crossed either side of the break to put them on their way to their biggest win of the campaign.
Credit to Liam Sutcliffe, too, who, in those testing conditions, enjoyed a 100 per cent record with the boot, kicking four penalties – those points were crucial in keeping error-ridden Wakefield at bay – and all four conversions.
With Mitch Garbutt leading from the front alongside Singleton in Rhinos’ grafting pack, they had a great platform to perform.
Their ball control was far superior to Wakefield’s who have now lost three of their last four games to leave their top-eight hopes still in doubt.
Their discipline let them down last night, both debutant David Fifita and Bill Tupou receiving yellow cards, which Leeds duly capitalised on.
It was Rhinos’ first away victory from Headingley since last September, when Hall famously ran down the touchline at Huddersfield to score that try that won the League Leaders’ Shield and the second part of their historic treble.
Now, however, Brian McDermott’s side are simply looking to avoid some other history – becoming the first champions to finish bottom the season after winning a Grand Final.
If they carry on like this, they may well do that.
Leeds sprang a surprise by including Zak Hardaker on the wing as he returned from a shoulder injury for his first appearance since putting in a transfer request.
The England full-back had not been in the original 19-man squad just like Hall, his international colleague named on the bench for his first game in almost three months after an ankle issue.
Wakefield welcomed back Scott Moore after missing the last six games with suspension and gave a debut to Fifita, the Australian prop recently signed from Cronulla Sharks.
In the driving rain, it was always going to be crucial keeping hold of possession.
Wakefield dropped first and Leeds immediately made them pay, Mitch Achurch surging onto Danny McGuire’s flat pass and bursting over from 2om inside two minutes for Sutcliffe to add the first of his eight goals. Garbutt nearly charged over soon after, just brought down by Max Jowitt before Beau Falloon was held up over the goalline.
Leeds looked the sharper of the sides early on – Trinity barely got out of their own half – but chances were at a premium and, understandably, there was plenty of handling errors.
Such was the state of the rain-lashed conditions it was no surprise when most of the Leeds side signalled for two points as soon as their opponents were caught offside in the 16th minute.
Sutcliffe duly converted the penalty but McDermott’s side were pegged back immediately when the hosts replied with their first attack of the game.
Matty Ashurst initially broke from deep down the left and, though the second-row was covered, Trinity handled well for Reece Lyne to eventually put Ben Jones-Bishop over in the opposite corner.
Liam Finn – captain for the night in the absence of both Danny Kirmond and Nick Scruton – converted from wide out but his side would struggle for any further momentum.
Hamstrung by handling mistakes, such as Fifita forcing an offload in the restart set, they made life difficult for themselves.
When Trinity illegally stripped possession, Sutcliffe added another penalty and, soon after, the hosts saw an incident put on report following a tackle on Ferres.
Given the amount of ball they secured – and despite their creative issues this term – it was inevitable Leeds would score again and so they did in the 35th minute.
Rob Burrow chipped a kick to the left where Hall rose high to palm down where the ball eventually found its way to Brad Singleton who crossed.
Sutcliffe stretched their lead further but Wakefield were incensed when Fifita – the giant prop signed recently from Cronulla Sharks – was given that yellow card seconds before the break.
He seemed to be hit high when driving in but then lashed out in retaliation before throwing the ball at the grounded Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
While Trinity were still down to 12, Singleton barged over for his second off McGuire’s smart short ball in the 48th minute.
Sutcliffe converted once more and, trailing 22-6, it was always going to be difficult for Trinity to recover.
Sutcliffe slotted another penalty and, after the hosts infringed again on the hour, Chris Chester’s side were put on a team warning with Sutcliffe kicking once more.
Yet just two minutes later, Tupou lifted the leg after a tackle was completed and he was duly sin-binned, too.
Sutcliffe slid over from close range in the 67th minute for a deserved try, one of the few downsides for Leeds being Joel Moon going off with concussion.
Wakefield saw Mickael Simon suffer the same fate. They need to be much better for Thursday’s Challenge Cup quarter-final against Huddersfield Giants.
A late penalty from Kurt Gidley earned Warrington a slender 20-18 victory in a tense battle with fellow First Utility Super League challengers Catalans Dragons.
There was little to separate the sides all night at the Halliwell Jones Stadium but Gidley’s second penalty in quick succession, and his fourth goal of the night, proved decisive.
Huddersfield Giants won 31-30 at Salford in their first match since Paul Anderson was sacked.