Leeds Rhinos survived a storming fightback from Hunslet Hawks before retaining the Leeds Brewery Lazenby Cup with a fortunate 22-20 win in a highly entertaining clash at South Leeds Stadium.
Rhinos led 22-6 on 50 minutes, but were clinging on at the end as three unanswered Hawks tries had them rocking.
The game followed a similar pattern to the previous weekend’s clash at York City Knights, when Rhinos dominated for much of the match before fading.
Under-20s boss Chris Plume admitted he was “a little bit disappointed” with Rhinos’ performance.
He praised his team for their patience in the first half and they way they opened up at the start of the second, but admitted: “It did seem we took our foot off the gas.
“There’s enough experience in the changing room to know if you take your foot off the gas the opposition will come back at you.
“I’d like to give credit to Hunslet because they never stopped and they kept trying. It was a good performance from them.”
Well-marshalled by Luke Helliwell, Hunslet played some neat rugby in the opening stages, though Rhinos made the greater ground with ball in hand as the hosts struggled to cope with props Ian Kirke and Luke Ambler.
They were among five players with Super League experience in Rhinos’ line-up, alongside Jay Pitts, Brad Singleton and Ben Jones-Bishop.
It was Jones-Bishop’s first game since last October’s Grand Final and he won’t have been happy with the way Hawks centre Josh Nathaniel got past him twice in the first half and once after the interval.
The cover defence snuffed out the danger close to the line on the initial occasion, but then on the final play before half-time Joe McLocklan planted a kick through and as Jones-Bishop hesitated the impressive ex-Milford man shot past to touch down.
Aaron Dobek’s goal made it 10-6 at the break after Leeds had dominated, but last-ditch defence and a lack of composure in attack restricted them to two tries.
Loose-forward Joe Pickets twice rescued Hawks with try-saving tackles on Singleton and then Stevie Ward, but pressure eventually told when Aaron Brown, Casey and Danny Bravo moved the ball wide to Jack Pring and the trialist centre’s pass was well finished by Jones-Bishop.
He almost added a second in the next set from Ward’s pass, but full-back Danny Ratcliffe did brilliantly to force him into touch at the corner.
A kick return saw Jones-Bishop ghost through again and Ratcliffe made the tackle, before Pitts knocked on over the Hunslet line.
Leeds’ second try finally arrived on the half hour when McLocklan made a break but fluffed a pass to Ratcliffe, Jimmy Watson picked up and split the defence and though Jack Bradbury made the tackle he got an offload away to put Casey over, the same player adding the extras.
Ward produced a moment of quality at the start of the second half with a lovely short pass to put Daniel Smith between the posts, Casey converting.
John Oakes was held up over the Leeds line by Watson and Ollie Olds before Ward skipped cleverly through from a scrum 30 metres out – moments after Ratcliffe’s tackle had halted the stand-off following a lovely one-two with Smith.
“Stevie played well and Dan sparked us up when he came on,” Plume said afterwards. “They have both got some skill and the ability to read what’s in front of them.
“For two young kids to be stand-outs in that team is good for them.”
Smith’s conversion made it 22-6 and it should have been game over, but McLocklan led an impressive fightback.
He sent Dave Tootill over moments after Ward’s try, Dobek -adding his second goal and McLocklan’s kick then bounced away from Jones-Bishop to present Nathaniel with a simple second, cutting Leeds’ advantage to six points.
Oakes was held up over the line a second time and Lee Brickwood went close before Dennis Tuffour squeezed over from Ratcliffe’s pass, but Helliwell and Bradbury failed to convert the final two tries and Leeds held on.
Hawks boss Barry Eaton said: “Leeds had a decent side out, including some players who have played in Grand Finals.
“For my boys to run them really, really close is pleasing. Our structure with the ball really looked like it’s getting there and we asked a lot of questions.”
The game was efficiently refereed by Greg Dolan, who awarded just four penalties – two to each side.
Meanwhile, Rhinos’ management are awaiting an update on hooker Liam Hood, who suffered a lower leg injury in the 66-0 win over Featherstone Rovers three days ago, though it is understood he has not suffered a break.
Hunslet Hawks: Ratcliffe, Kain, Nathaniel, Bradbury, Tuffour, Helliwell, Dobek, Yates, Haigh, Lewis, Nicholson, Oakes, Pickets. Subs (all used) Brickwood, Allan, Benjafield, Challenger, McLocklan, Tootill.
Leeds Rhinos: Watson, Jones-Bishop, Keinhorst, Pring, Chisholm, Ward, Casey, Kirke, Brown, Ambler, Bravo, Pitts, Singleton. Subs (all used) D Smith, Olds, Roche, Davies.
Referee: Greg Dolan (Castleford).