Leeds Rhinos 25 Leigh Centurions 12: Ward helps avoid Headingley Cup upset

LEEDS RHINOS are through to Sunday’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi-final draw, but they were pushed to the limit by a remarkable performance from lower division visitors Leigh Centurions

By Peter Smith
Friday, 6th June 2014, 11:44 pm
Zak Hardaker scores a Leeds try.
Zak Hardaker scores a Leeds try.

For a long time it looked like Rhinos might be victims of one of the competition’s greatest shocks.

The Kingstone Press Championship leaders were the better team for much of the game and only two tries in the final eight minutes spared Leeds blushes.

The 25-12 scoreline did not do justice to how well Leigh played in a cracking Cup tie, which will whet the appetite for when Leigh compete with the bottom four teams in Super League following the competition’s restructure next year.

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On this evidence they are as good as several teams at the bottom end of the Super League table. Man for man Rhinos seemed shocked by Leigh’s enthusiasm and the visitors deserved to be level at the break, despite Leeds having a couple of touchdowns ruled out.

After Leeds took an early lead Centurions scored back-to-back tries to go ahead and though Rhinos did most of the pressing after that, Leigh’s inspired defence – plus a lack of ideas from the home side – restricted them to only a few half-chances and one more touchdown.

Martyn Ridyard was outstanding for Leigh and their pack put in a huge effort. As expected from an unbeaten team on a run of 16 straight wins, Leigh played with confidence, spirit and adventure, they made very few errors and their defence was extraordinary.

The scores remained level for 33 minutes of the second period and Leeds had a number of scares before 18-year-old Robbie Ward became the hero, darting over from acting-half for a try to break the deadlock.

It looked as though Leeds might have an easy night when Liam Sutcliffe’s passes opened up the Leigh defence twice in the opening six minutes.

Initially he sent Zak Hardaker tearing into space, but Oliver Wilkes made the tackle and though the full-back’s offload sent Stevie Ward over, it was forward.

In Leeds’ next set Sutcliffe put Ward away. His loose pass was picked up by Hardaker, Joel Moon was next in line and Ryan Hall finished off at the corner, Kevin Sinfield adding the extras.

Sutcliffe had been due to start in the second-row, but was switched into the halves in place of Danny McGuire, who was a late withdrawal after pulling a calf muscle in training.

With Rob Burrow already out, McGuire was a big loss for Leeds and his absence contributed to a lack of creativity when they got close to the Leigh line, though Sutcliffe had a fine game and was the pivot in Leeds’ attack.

For the second successive week that meant Stevie Ward was called into the team, starting at No 11. The man he replaced last week, Brett Delaney, recovered from illness and was alongside him in the second-row.

Ryan Bailey got a recall at loose-forward and teenage rugby union convert Josh Walters made his debut off the bench.

The starting second-row against Warrington seven days earlier – Carl Ablett (suspended) and Mitch Achurch (knee injury) – were both missing.

Centurions received back-to-back penalties following Leeds’ opening try and they made the pressure count when prop Tom Spencer rampaged over – out of Bailey’s attempted tackle and past Hardaker – from Ryan Brierley’s pass and Ridyard levelled the scores with his conversion.

Sinfield hoofed the restart dead and following the penalty Leigh scored again to send their travelling support into raptures.

The try was improvised on the final tackle, play being moved from side to side before Ridyard kicked to his left.

Liam Kay – the former Wakefield Trinity Wildcats winger – made the catch and got the ball out to Tom Armstrong, whose try was converted by Ridyard.

Brierley gets the headlines, but Ridyard is a player who makes Leigh tick. On 25 he chipped over the defence on the last, regathered, and almost made it to the line before slipping out a pass to Brierley. He looked a certain scorer, but Moon made a fabulous tackle.

Rhinos should have been level moments later when Sutcliffe went over, but referee Ben Thaler cut out the middle man and ruled it out for obstruction, without reference to his video assistants. It was a poor call. There were five similar rulings in midfield later in the game and it seemed Thaler – who didn’t have his best game – had his rule book open at the letter O this week.

On 30, Thaler did ask for Robert Hicks and Steve Ganson’s help after Sutcliffe kicked ahead, regathered, offloaded and Ward touched down. The try was given and Sinfield booted the goal to level the scores, which was how it stayed until the break, Brierley being off target with a drop goal in the final seconds of the half.

Jamie Peacock was one of the Leeds players who looked as though he realised the importance of the game and what was at stake.

Three minutes into the second half he was butted by Matt Sarsfield and reacted angrily, sparking a skirmish. That was put on report and both Sarsfield and Peacock were sin-binned, with the penalty going to the hosts.

Leigh were within a metre of regaining the lead when Ridyard’s pass picked out Wilkes, but Sinfield’s tackle forced a knock-on.

The longer it remained all square the more anxious Leeds became, on and off the field.With Leigh beginning to run out of steam the hosts established a territorial dominance in the third quarter, but they struggled to create any openings and the Leigh line was rarely put under sustained pressure.

The hosts rarely got their three-quarters into the game and the forwards were unable to dominate and Leigh got a second wind to put Leeds under the cosh as the game entered the final 20.

With 14 minutes left Rhinos had an escape when Tommy Goulden’s kick went dead just before Jonny Pownall could get there. In the set from the scrum Peacock made a break and Walters almost got over in the same set, but was hauled down short.

Into the last 10 minutes a ball steal from Robbie Ward put Rhinos in extreme danger, only for Sean Penkywicz’s loose pass to be snapped up by Tom Briscoe.

He took Rhinos upfield, Walters was also involved in the counter-attack and it ended with Robbie Ward going over for his first senior try.

Sinfield converted and then booted a smart drop goal to open a two-score gap and finally calm Leeds’ nerves.

With two minutes left Peacock made a break which was finished off by Hardaker and Sinfield improved, but that was cruel on Leigh.

Meanwhile, Rhinos under-19s beat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 38-0 in the curtain-raiser.

Ash Handley and Brad England both scored a brace of tries, Robbie Mulhern, Matty Stableford and Jordan Lilley also crossed and Joe Sanderson kicked five goals.