THERE IS a time and place for flair and adventurous rugby, but Easter Monday at Emerald Headingley wasn’t it.
It was an afternoon to roll sleeves up and get stuck in and Leeds Rhinos did that to good effect, toughing out a precious 20-0 win over Salford Red Devils.
It wasn’t pretty. Driving rain and a wet – though in remarkably good condition – pitch ensured it would be an arm wrestle, but both teams put in a big effort and Leeds deservedly came out on top.
Everything considered, it was a fine performance from the champions and went some way to making up for the disappointing draw at Huddersfield Giants three days earlier.
In contrast to recent games, Rhinos made a strong start and were 12-0 ahead at the break.
Leeds coped better with the conditions, though both sides made mistakes and in the opening 40 they did most of the attacking, without being able to move the ball.
There were only two tries in the first half, one from a rare flowing move and the other, predictably, as the direct result of a mistake.
Rhinos defended strongly throughout, as the clean sheet suggests. Salford, on the back of a flurry of penalties, had more of the play after half-time, but showed few signs of being able to find a way over the hosts’ line.
The visitors also defended well and were probably more competitive than the final scoreline suggests, Leeds’ second-half try not coming until four minutes from time.
A major plus for Leeds was Stevie Ward’s return from the calf muscle tear he suffered in the World Club Challenge at Melbourne Storm on February 16.
He started in the second-row, in place of Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who was given a break after a huge workload in recent weeks, but moved to centre inside the opening quarter when Tom Briscoe suffered a cut to a leg which required stitches.
Ash Handley switched from left-centre to right-wing, Ward moved into the left-centre and Cameron Smith came on in the second-row. Ward was given a breather when Briscoe returned for the second half.
The early introduction was a bonus for Smith and he did a good job. He hasn’t had chance to show his skills with ball in hand yet, but seems to be growing in confidence with every game and looks like a very good player in the making.
Matt Parcell, who was rested against Huddersfield, started at hooker and Brad Dwyer – despite not being named in the initial 19 – dropped to the bench.
Ashton Golding, who had come on as replacement dummy-half against Giants, reverted to full-back in place of ankle-injury victim Jack Walker.
It wasn’t an easy day for a full-back, but Golding had a good game. With Anthony Mullally ruled out due to concussion, Brett Delaney switched to prop and Josh Walters came back into the team at loose-forward.
Walters dropped down the pecking order last year, but has forced his way back into the picture and was Leeds’ outstanding player, playing the full-80, scoring a fine try and standing up well in defence, along with Carl Ablett.
Liam Sutcliffe and Jimmy Keinhorst were both available after more than a month on the casualty list, but not risked in the wet conditions. Keinhorst was 18th man.
Adam Cuthbertson, who is hopeful of being available in around two weeks’ time, and Nathaniel Peteru and Mitch Garbutt remained on the casualty list.
Rhinos were in control from the fifth minute, when they opened the scoring. Jake Bibby knocked on deep in Salford’s territory and in the set from the scrum Ablett, Richie Myler, whose kicking game was influential, and Kallum Watkins moved the ball right and Briscoe finished at the corner, though the try was unconverted.
Handley has scored some cracking tries in recent games. His seventh – in four matches – was more basic. On 16 minutes Joel Moon put up a high kick, Niall Evalds lost it behind Salford’s line and Handley, who had been following up to try and force a repeat set, touched down.
Watkins landed a difficult conversion from the touchline to make it 10-0. Salford’s first sight of the Leeds line came via a penalty, but Ablett did well to wrap up Robert Lui in possession on the last.
A knock-on by Ward gave Reds their only other attacking opportunity, but he made amends with a tremendous trysaving tackle to force Bibby into touch just short of the line after crisp handling by Jack Littlejohn and Robert Lui seemed to have stretched Rhinos’ defence.
Leeds received five penalties in the first half, to Salford’s two – one of which was on the final play. Rhinos’ last penalty of the opening period came a couple of minutes before the break, for a shoulder charge on Myler and Watkins took the two.
The third-quarter was uneventful, though it did produce the game’s best passage of play, Leeds keeping the ball alive in exciting fashion, with Handley and Walters both fashioning fine offloads and Myler and ward being involved twice. A Salford hand eventually knocked the ball down to end the move, but the visitors were penalised for holding down in front of the posts in the set from the scrum and Watkins kicked Leeds three scores clear.
A mix-up between Moon and Myler turned the ball over from the restart and successive penalties on Rhinos’ line gave the visitors an opportunity, but a big tackle by Moon and Handley forced George Griffin to knock-on.
Walters and Golding held up Logan Tomkins over the line following another penalty and then Griffin again lost possession – ending a sequence of 18 tackles on Leeds’ line – under pressure from Handley.
The game was up after that and Leeds applied heavy late pressure.
Salford, to their credit, stuck at their task and the only second-half try came after a long spell inside their 20 when Walters ran a nice line and powered his way through to give Watkins a simple conversion.
Greg Dolan was in charge of a Leeds game for the first time, just two years after being the community game’s National Conference referee of the season.
The Dewsbury ref’ has had a rapid rise and, overall, he did all right. The penalty count finished 10-8 in Leeds’ favour.