Having seven players on the casualty list and one suspended made the round-three fixture at Catalans Dragons an even taller order than it normally is, but Rhinos flew home afterwards knowing they let themselves down.
The visitors played well in patches of their 32-28 defeat and there were some big individual efforts, as well as several top-class tries, but they let two points get away from them.
The defending champions demonstrated that whatever they are lacking at the moment, it isn’t spirit or determination. They have got lots of that, but winning teams also need patience, discipline and clear thinking and those are lacking at the moment.
To sum it up, they weren’t smart enough. A disastrous start to the final 40 minutes, for the second week running, allowed Catalans to extend their lead from 12-8 to 24-8 and at that stage Leeds could have collapsed.
Instead, unlike the capitulation at Widnes Vikings in their previous league game, they hit back to within four points with more than a quarter of the game remaining.
They seemed to be getting on top, but errors and penalties allowed Catalans – who played well for much of the game – to regain the advantage. Again Rhinos responded and again they shot themselves in the foot.
At 30-24 going into the final 10 minutes they were capable of coming away with a draw at least, but a soft penalty in front of the posts – for a shoulder charge by Anthony Mullally – gift-wrapped Catalans two points which meant the visitors had to score twice and they could manage to get over the line only once after that.
It was Leeds’ fourth defeat in as many games this term and their third in First Utility Super League. Last year’s treble winners are bottom of the table and a top-four finish – giving them an extra home game in the Super-8s – already looks a big task.
They face Huddersfield Giants, Wigan Warriors, St Helens and Castleford Tigers – all of whom beat Rhinos and finished in the top-five last year – in the next four games and if they lose those, simply finishing in the top eight will become the target.
Rhinos are doing it tough. Injuries are obviously having a bearing, but they weren’t the crucial factor in Perpignan. The bottom line was Leeds looked one-dimensional in attack in the first half and when they improved in that area in the second, their defence became faulty.
The tries scored by Krisnan Inu – who simply outpaced the defence – and Tony Gigot, after Todd Carney and Glenn Stewart had linked well, soon after half-time were poor ones to concede. In successive games Leeds have gone in at the break in good shape, but wasted much of their hard work immediately afterwards.
Dave Taylor – who is a huge human – barged over from close range for the hosts’ first and fifth tries, but Catalans’ second was a good one.
Much of the pre-match attention centred on the first appearance of former Australian Test forward Willie Mason.
Also making his debut was Leeds academy product Jodie Broughton and he dashed clear and kicked in-field for Richard Myler to collect and go over.
For the second time in three league matches, Leeds shared the tries with their opponents. Rhinos’ five tries doubled their total from their previous four games, so that was encouraging.
Pat Richards converted all of Catalans’ and added the penalty, while Jordan Lilley landed four from six, but no blame should be attached to Leeds’ teenage half-back.
None of his kicks was easy; he landed a couple of belters and his penalty after the half-time hooter – with the home fans roaring their disapproval – was nerveless.
Lilley has been Leeds’ shining light this year and had another good game. He is clearly growing in confidence and he is a good organiser for a 19-year-old rookie.
Liam Sutcliffe is still finding his feet after seven months on the injury list, but also did well for much of the game. There’s no doubt, though, Rhinos are lacking an attacking spark near the opposition’s line. The sooner Danny McGuire returns, the better.
There was just one change to the 17 beaten by North Queensland Cowboys in the World Club Challenge, Mitch Achurch – having recovered from a rib injury – replacing the suspended Mitch Garbutt.
It was his first Leeds appearance of the season, after playing on dual-registration in Featherstone Rovers’ opening two Kingstone Press Championship fixtures.
He didn’t get a huge amount of game time, but fitted in well and made a sensational break to set up a try for Sutcliffe in the second half.
Brad Singleton was at prop and Jimmy Keinhorst also stepped up off the bench, to start in the second-row.
Keinhorst had a strong game, contributing some important tackles, particluarly in the opening 40 and was well worth his place.
Adam Cuthbertson was among the substitutes, alongside Mullally, Achurch and Josh Walters, so Leeds had some real size on the bench. Jordan Baldwinson travelled to France, but did not feature. He was the only member of Rhinos’ 26-strong full-time squad not either playing or injured.
It was an exciting, entertaining game, despite the errors and driving rain late on and there were some talking points. Catalans’ and Taylor’s first try was awarded after referee Ben Thaler asked Thierry Alibert to check for a possible knock-on. The video assistant had a long look, but at the wrong incident! The try would probably still have been awarded, but that sort of farcical situation does the sport no favours.
Rhinos’ first touchdown was scrappy; Sutcliffe grubber-kicked to the in-goal, full-back Tony Gigot picked up, lost the ball in Ash Handley’s tackle and Kallum Watkins touched down.
After Catalans had gone 16 points up, Watkins’ excellent round-the-man pass found Achurch and he blasted up the right flank before sending the supporting Sutcliffe over. That was an outstanding score.
Ryan Hall then finished off quick hands by Rob Burrow, Zak Hardaker, Brett Ferres and Joel Moon, but a penalty against Moon for interference was punished when Taylor went over.
Handley scored his first try of the season, sliding over from an excellent kick by Sutcliffe, but the penalty goal left Leeds with too much to do, despite Watkins’ strong finish for his second try with a couple of minutes left.
The penalty count finished 8-7 in Leeds’ favour (7-3 in the first half).