WHEN HE is appointed full-time coach, as seems likely in the near future, Richard Agar will have plenty of work to do.
Rhinos have improved significantly under Agar’s watch as interim-boss, but have a long way to go to become contenders again.
From where they have been this year, achieving safety with two games in hand was an achievement, but they have had a very poor season and suffered their 17th defeat of the league campaign at home to Salford Red Devils last night.
It was Salford’s seventh successive Super League victory and their second against Rhinos this year. They may not be able to match Leeds’ resources, but they are making the most of what they have got and just about deserved their 20-12 win.
Significantly, it looked like they wanted it more, in the first half especially. Leeds upped it a gear after the break and did most of the pressing, but they lacked the killer punch.
Rhinos defended well, but made too many errors and lacked ideas close to Salford’s line
Nathaniel Peteru was left out for the second successive game and Brad Singleton didn’t get selected despite being available after a two-match ban.
With Adam Cuthbertson ruled out due to illness, Leeds went with no specialist props on the bench.
Salford were bigger and more powerful up the middle, particularly when Ava Seumanufagai, who was very good again and Mikolaj Oledzki went off.
Leeds’ best chance was to use pace out wide, but they didn’t do it enough. Konrad Hurrell had a few strong charges, though he also made a couple of errors, but Luke Briscoe and Ash Handley didn’t get much of a look in.
Leeds were disorganised at times, twice being penalised for obstruction in possession near the Salford line and there was an awful mix-up at a play-the-ball after some good work by Rhyse Martin had established a decent attacking position.
Crucially Rhinos, whose kicking game was poor, didn’t ask enough questions of Salford’s defence and failed to turn pressure into points after the interval.
One positive for Leeds was the return of two players from long-term injury.
Stevie Ward was drafted into the squad the day before the game in place of Brett Ferres who had a knee injury and Jamie Jones-Buchanan took over from James Donaldson, the 18th man.
Ward was introduced – to a warm reception – on 31 minutes, seconds before Salford opened the scoring.
He stayed on and did a decent job. Jones-Buchanan, who had not played since the May loss at Salford in Dave Furner’s final game as coach, came on after 30 minutes, played two spells and scored Leeds’ second try.
Salford had the first opportunity on 12 minutes when Logan Tomkins forced his way over the line from acting-half but knocked-on. That came after the ever-dangerous Jackson Hastings had almost cut through, but Jack Walker made the tackle.
Leeds also got over the whitewash without reward through Hurrell, who was held up after a typically powerful run. They had tapped a kickable penalty in that set, following a high tackle by Kris Welham on Liam Sutcliffe who was restored to the starting line-up. That reflected the fact the pressure was off. In a game they needed to win Leeds would probably have taken the two.
Leeds were backing up five days after playing on an artificial pitch and Salford, on an eight-day turnaround, looked fresher. They did most of the pressing and it was no surprise when they opened the scoring after 22 minutes.
Sutcliffe missed Hastings in midfield and the scrum-half – who Leeds were chasing before he opted to join Wigan for next year – put Niall Evalds over.
It was Evalds’ 22nd try of the campaign and moved him level with Leeds’ Ash Handley at the top of the Super League chart.
Leeds’ problems were illustrated soon afterwards when Trent Merrin – who went off hurt in the second half – was tackled in possession on the last 10 metres out.
Rhinos were penalised in the resulting set and from that Salford increased their lead through Jake Bibby who got on the end of Evalds’ pass after Hastings had handled. Inu booted his second conversion.
Rhinos created very little, but did have a chance seven minutes before the break when Robert Lui supplied Harry Newman and he offloaded to the right wing, but Luke Briscoe had over-run him and the ball went into touch.
Brad Dwyer’s introduction off the bench gave Leeds a lift. He played the full 80 at London when Shaun Lunt wasn’t selected, but resumed the impact role last night.
Buoyed by his – and Jones-Buchanan’s enthusiasm – Leeds lifted and halved the deficit with a lovely try; Sutcliffe offloaded to Walker and he put the supporting Richie Myler over.
That was just what the doctor ordered, three minutes before the break, but one of their failings this year – among several – has been an inability to complete the set after they score.
Time and again they have given the momentum away and it happened again. Hurrell knocked on, Dwyer was penalised and Inu took the two after the half-time hooter had sounded.
Leeds created a series of half-chances in the third quarter, being denied a try by a knock-on over the line from a kick by Lui and Myler having the ball stolen as he tried to reach over.
Seumanufagai’s return made a difference and with 25 left he was pulled down just short, Dwyer kicked through from acting-half and Jones-Buchanan – to the delight of most of the 12,436 crowd – touched down. Martin’s second conversion made it a two-point ball game, but Leeds couldn’t kick on.
Rhinos’ defence has been much better under Agar.
Late on Leeds were penalised three times on their own line and Salford took the tap each time.
The hosts muscled up really well in defence and were a finger tip away from snatching a breakaway – and possibly winning – try when Harry Newman agonisingly just failed to hold on to an attempted interception.
That was one of three repeat sets Salford received on top of the penalties, but Leeds refused to crack.
That might have been a turning point, but an error by Cameron Smith gave Salford another opportunity, the tackle count was wiped a couple of times, rather harshly and Joey Lussick went over from close range.
Inu’s fourth goal sealed it after a delay as grounds staff dealt with a flair thrown on to the pitch from the Salford end. They travelled in bigger numbers than usual, but idiotic behaviour like that does their club no favours.
The penalty count finished 11-10 in Leeds’ favour (five-five in the first half).