Analysis - Leeds Rhinos can take positives from gutsy Challenge Cup defeat at St Helens
Leeds Rhinos have come a long way from the dispirited, disjointed and disinterested side responsible for the club’s previous Betfred Challenge Cup defeat, against Bradford Bulls 23 months ago.
That was Richard Agar’s first game as coach and he inherited a team heading in only one direction, down.
The result of Saturday’s third round tie at St Helens was the same, Rhinos are out of the competition at an early stage, but the performance could not have been more different - and this time, the outlook is far brighter.
Rhinos’ lineup looked as though Agar had jotted names on pieces of paper and added them to the teamsheet in the order they were pulled from a hat: Leeds had a centre at full-back, forwards at centre and in the pivots and two debutants - one of them aged 17 and straight out of the scholarship - on the bench.
Rhyse Martin and Cameron Smith were drafted in as seventh- and eighth-choice half-backs, after all Leeds’ specialists - and even their back-up - in the position were ruled out.
Luke Gale’s fractured thumb had been rumoured throughout the week, but Liam Sutcliffe (knee) and Bodene Thompson (ribs) also joined the casualty list from the team beaten by Castleford Tigers eight days earlier, so - including Kyle Eastmond, still deemed not ready for his rugby league return - Rhinos were without 12 senior players.
They had no right to get within 20 points of the back-to-back Super League champions, but with two minutes left on the clock they trailed by only two and were in with a genuine chance of victory.
It was a staggering effort, particularly as they were a man down for 35 minutes after Zane Tetevano was sent-off by referee Ben Thaler for a late challenge on Theo Fages.
Some games it would have been a yellow card and the inconsistency is frustrating, particularly as three games earlier Leeds didn’t receive even a penalty (from a different referee) for two offences which led to the perpetrators being banned for a total of 14 games. But Rhinos benefitted from a harsh red card against Castleford a few weeks before that and once Tetevano had departed what mattered most was their response.
The penalty increased Saints’ narrow half-time lead to four points and within 15 minutes they were 20-6 ahead and cruising into the fourth round, but - as so often happens - livewire substitute Brad Dwyer turned the game on its head.
He darted over twice from acting-half close to the line and Saints faced a nervous final five minutes. They managed to seal it with a converted try by Tommy Makinson in the final minute, but Agar’s patched up team emerged with huge credit.
The pre-match aim would have been to stay in the arm wrestle for as long as possible and not concede early. When Makinson crossed inside four minutes - off straightforward passing from left to right by the half-backs and his centre Kevin Naiqama - and then booted a touchline conversion, it looked like being a long, painful afternoon for Leeds.
The spirit and determination they showed after that was admirable. Leeds like to throw the ball around, but Agar adopted a more simple, direct gameplan and all their three tries came via route one.
Kruise Leeming had a big first stint as did Mikolaj Oledzki, who powered over for the converted try which equalised the scores after 10 minutes.
The only other first half points came on 16 when Makinson booted a penalty. Taking the two showed Saints knew they were in the battle and probably gave Leeds a lift.
Regan Grace scored Saints’ first two touchdowns of the second half, with Makinson converting one of them and Thaler was overruled by video assistant Liam Moore when he thought James Roby had touched down from acting-half.
Fourteen points adrift with 18 minutes left, 12-man Rhinos could have collapsed, but instead Dwyer got them back in it, the second of his brace coming after instructions from the sideline to kick for goal from a penalty had been ignored.
Had a couple of specialist half-backs - or maybe even one - been on the field, Rhinos might well have won.
Martin and Smith had a real go, but Gale’s absence stood out like, well, a sore thumb. The encouraging thing for Rhinos was, they created chances and once they get some firepower in the backs, the tries will come.
Whether Leeds can back up against the European game’s other benchmark team, Wigan, on Thursday, off a short turnaround, remains to be seen, but over the first three games of the season they have shown there is a good side building at Emerald Headingley.
Rookie Jack Broadbent had another fine game at full-back in his sixth first team appearance.
Sam Walters was strong in the second-row and 19-year-old back-rower Jarrod O’Connor punched well above his weight off the bench.
Both were playing their fifth senior game.
Morgan Gannon, who is two years younger, was brought on for the last 15 minutes and had a couple of good touches on debut, so there were some real positives to take, despite the disappointment of being out of the Cup.
King Vuniyayawa also made his debut, but lasted only three minutes before being knocked out in a sickening collision with Agnatius Paasi, who was Saints’ best player.
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