LEEDS RHINOS ran up their highest score since August, 2015 last night, but it wasn’t enough for them to record a second successive win.
Rhinos were pipped 38-34 in a bizarre, frantic encounter at St Helens, who scored seven tries to the visitors’ six.
Leeds have only looked like an attacking threat twice this season, both against Saints – who they beat 30-18 in the home game last month.
They played possibly their best attacking rugby of the season, particularly during an 11-minute spell in the first half when they went from 10-0 down to 16-10 ahead, but their defence let them down, again.
To be fair it was a brave effort by Rhinos who were already missing so many key players and picked up more injuries during the game to Carl Ablett, Zak Hardaker and Brett Delaney in particular and were without any fit players on the bench late on.
But it’s hard to remember a game when the two teams have produced a worse defensive effort between them.
The first half was a mirror image of the opening period at Headingley last month. Saints led 10-0 inside seven minutes, but Leeds got in front, only for the hosts to level just before the interval.
Both teams went ahead early in the second half, before Saints twice opened a 10-point lead and Leeds hit back on both occasions, only to run out of time.
Rhinos fielded the same 17 from last week’s win over Hull, though with positional changes.
Beau Falloon – an unused substitute against Hull – started at hooker with Rob Burrow moving to scrum-half and Jordan Lilley at stand-off, so Liam Sutcliffe was on the bench.
The Lilley-Burrow combination was Rhinos’ fifth half-back pairing this season, in 13 competitive games.
Sutcliffe was the first substitute used, coming on for Falloon after 20 minutes. He went into the halves and Burrow took over at hooker and that change had an instant effect as Leeds suddenly looked like they might score a try or two, which is rare this year.
Delaney also started, in the second-row, swapping places with Mitch Achurch.
Saints had lost their three previous home games, but fielded a stronger side last night. Their big news was the return of Jonny Lomax after 13 months on the casualty list.
It took him all of five minutes to score their opening try, stepping past Hardaker after James Roby had surged out of dummy-half and offloaded from a tackle by Falloon.
Luke Walsh added the extras and his break was finished by Joe Greenwood in the next set, making it 10-0 after seven minutes.
Six minutes later Lilley returned Theo Fages’ kick, was dragged back in goal by the French half-back and Greenwood and lost the ball.
Mark Percival touched down and referee Phil Bentham handed the decision on. Video referee Richard Silverwood ruled no try, but – strangely – awarded a scrum to Saints, from which Louie McCarthy knocked-on to let Leeds off the hook.
That was a huge escape for Rhinos, but seemed to be only delaying the inevitable as Saints continued to press.
Jimmy Keinhorst made a couple of important tackles on Alex Walmsley and Keith Galloway also did a good job defensively as the hosts turned up the pressure near Leeds’ line three times.
Rhinos’ only attack in the opening quarter came off a knock-on by Fages near his own line, but Hardaker spilled Falloon’s pass early in the count. It had one of those nights written all over it, but on 23 minutes Burrow darted clear from acting-half.
Jon Wilkin got back to prevent Burrow scoring, but then Sutcliffe, in the centre of the field, picked out Golding on the right wing with an astonishing long-range pass and Lilley converted from the touchhline. Six minutes later Hardaker failed to find touch with Leeds’ only penalty of the half, near their line.
Saints looked like making it count, but Lilley intercepted and sent Sutcliffe away. Roby got him, but then Lilley worked a one-two with Golding and Singleton produced a fine pass to put Burrow over.
There was no goal, but seven minutes before the interval Leeds scored possibly their best try of the season so far, Kallum Watkins, Burrow, Ablett, Lilley and Singleton all handling before Achurch picked a pass off his toes and brilliantly got the ball away to Keinhorst, whose finish – with a terrific show and go – was top class. That came after Saints had been trapped in possession yet again. Lilley converted to make to 16-10 and Leeds should have led at the break, but they shot themselves in the foot.
Saints were going nowhere, but a needless penalty for a high tackle by Anthony Mullally took them into Leeds’ 20 and Walsh slid a grubber through for Lomax to touch down, the No 7 adding his second goal to square the scores.
Rhinos applied heavy pressure from two penalties – in in front of the posts – after Jack Owens dropped the second half kick-off.
Delaney almost forced his way over, but then couldn’t take a pass by Watkins, who had been kept out by Roby’s superb tackle.
That was a crucial passage of play. Hardaker, at acting-half, was flattened by Kyle Amor. The ball came loose and the ex-Leeds man touched down. Video ref Silverwood confirmed the try, which was unconverted and Hardaker went off after treatment. Again Rhinos responded, Ash Handley bursting up the middle for a stunning solo try which Lilley converted, only for Saints to respond almost immediately through Greenwood’s second try and Walsh’s third goal, following a Singleton error and penalty against Jamie Jones-Buchanan. Then Galloway was penalised and Fages darted over on the last tackle, Walsh’s goal making it 32-22.
Leeds got back in it with 13 minutes left when Mullally forced his way over from close-range following a penalty after a break by Mitch Garbutt.
Lilley’s goal cut the gap to four points, but moments later Fages forced the ball loose from Garbutt and then ran through the defence at the other end and Walsh converted to make it 38-28.
Walsh hit a post with a drop goal attempt and Fages knocked on trying to go over from the rebound.
In the resulting set Handley put Keinhorst over from Sutcliffe’s kick and Lilley converted, but Leeds ran out of time.
There were positives: particularly the performance of Burrow, Handley, Keinhorst and Lilley,
If Leeds can attack like that on a consistent basis, there could still be life in their season, but unless they improve their defence, Rhinos are certainly heading for the middle-eights.
The penalty count finished 4-4 (2-1 to Saints in the first half).