OFF-COLOUR Leeds Rhinos missed a golden opportunity when they slumped to a thumping 38-24 defeat at Widnes Vikings yesterday.
A win would have opened a four-point gap, but Rhinos are now just two points ahead of second-placed Wigan Warriors, with them to play twice.
Second-bottom beating top is the sort of result that’s good for the competition, but it was a bad day for Rhinos, reminiscent of the final quarter of last season.
Since the win at St Helens, which lifted them six points clear at the top of the table, Rhinos have gone three games without a win and on this form that run might continue for a while.
Going so far ahead hasn’t done Leeds any favours. In a very competitive league, teams have to be switched on every week and Rhinos haven’t been for two and a half of their past three games, the exception being the first half at Huddersfield Giants.
Yesterday was Widnes’ first win over Leeds in 12 meetings, dating back to 2003 and they thoroughly deserved the points.
Widnes are a better team than their league position suggests and they have been threatening to beat one of the top teams for several weeks.
Rhinos led by six points briefly in the first half, but were second best for most of the game.
They could point a finger at some controversial decisions from referee Phil Bentham, who was quick to penalise Leeds and reluctant to do the same to the hosts.
The first half penalty count was 5-1 in the hosts’ favour and it finished 7-2. That meant Widnes had most of the ball and Rhinos used up a great deal of their energy in defence.
Widnes are a tough team to keep out on their own pitch and the steady flow of penalties in their favour gave them momentum Leeds struggled to contain.
Skipper Kevin Sinfield was left out for the second successive game and Leeds looked disorganised at times; Joel Moon and Brett Delaney both found themselves kicking on the last tackle in the first half.
They had nobody to steady the ship when things went against them, but uncharacteristically feeble defence and poor errors, which let Widnes off the hook at crucial times and put themselves under pressure, were at the root of Rhinos’ downfall.
For example, trailing 28-24 with eight minutes left, Kallum Watkins spilled Zak Hardaker’s unnecessary pass near his own line and Widnes scored what was the game-breaking try in the next set.
The opening exchanges set the tone for the game. It took Leeds five minutes and 13 seconds to get their hands on the ball and they were 4-0 down when they did.
Lloyd White, who has been impressive for Widnes this season, broke up the middle, Leeds conceded two penalties – either side of a scrum feed to the hosts – and after all that Chris Clarkson, on loan from Rhinos to Widnes, crashed over from Kevin Brown’s pass.
Jack Owens failed to convert, from almost in front, but improved five of Widnes’ six other tries.
Danny McGuire’s kick, at the end of Leeds’ first set, forced a drop out, thanks to an error by Rhys Hanbury and on the final tackle from that Stevie Ward stretched over from a pass by McGuire.
Ward was back in the team after missing the draw at Huddersfield due to an ankle injury.
There were several other positional and personnel changes to that team.
Rob Burrow started at hooker, with Paul Aiton dropping to the bench for the first time this season.
Jamie Peacock was also among the substitutes, swapping places with starting front-rower Singleton.
Josh Walters, who has been playing on dual-registration for Hunslet Hawks, came off the bench for his first Leeds appearance of the season.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan wasn’t risked, because of a hamstring niggle, Rob Mulhern dropped out and long-term casualty Kylie Leuluai was 18th man.
Widnes made a couple of errors in good field position early on, Alex Gerrard dropping a simple pass and then Brown firing a long pass beyond Patrick Ah Van into touch.
That was a costly error as Leeds scored in the resulting possession.
McGuire stabbed a kick over the line, two defenders failed to pick the ball up and Moon was presented with a simple touchdown. Liam Sutcliffe kicked the first of his two conversions.
Rhinos had other chances, Carl Ablett losing possession after Ward’s offload had put Watkins clear and then Adam Cuthbertson failing to take Peacock’s pass close to the line.
On 26 minutes Watkins couldn’t take an offload by Ward 40 metres from the Leeds line and off the scrum Owens burst down the wing and Stefan Marsh was in support to cross.
Four minutes before the break Joe Mellor was tackled high by Aiton.
Bentham signalled for a penalty, but then changed his mind and the Widnes No 7 cut through to score, Owen’s goal making it 16-10.
Presumably Bentham hadn’t blown his whistle and it’s doubtful Leeds’ defence would have prevented the touchdown anyway, though both sets of players did hesitate.
Bentham finally awarded Rhinos a penalty in the 40th minute and they took advantage to score on the final play of the half, Watkins diving over at the corner after excellent passes by Sutcliffe and Jimmy Keinhorst, making it 16-14 at half-time.
Nine minutes into the second half Widnes were two scores clear for the first time.
McGuire thought he had snuffed out an attack close to Leeds’ line when he intercepted a Vikings pass, but Bentham called him offside and Danny Galea went over for a try following the tap.
Manase Manuokafoa forced his way over on 53 minutes as the lead extended to 28-14, but Rhinos responded with a classy score, Sutcliffe kicking low to the corner and centre Watkins reading it well to cross for his second.
Keinhorst went over moments later, after Leeds’ second and final penalty and Leeds should have gone on with the job, but the Watkins/Hardaker error allowed Brown to put Chris Dean over for the hosts’ sixth try.
A couple of minutes from time Aaron Heremaia scored a bizarre try to complete the scoring, ambling behind the attacking line to literally walk over at the corner and a famous win for the hosts.
Rhinos centre Joel Moon was placed on report for an alleged dangerous tackle on Clarkson which led to Widnes’ first penalty.