It was all-square at the break, but Cowboys scored within 60 seconds of the restart and added five more touchdowns in a one-sided second half.
After the drubbings handed out to St Helens and Wigan Warriors by Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos in the opening two games of the World Club Series, pre-match expectations were not high.
Though the dam burst in the second half, under-strength Leeds put some pride back into Super League with their spirited performance in the first half.
Rhinos went toe-to-toe with the visitors in the opening 40, dominated territory and possession and deservedly went in all square at the break, Rob Burrow’s touchdown cancelling out the visitors’ opening score.
Leeds had enough of the ball near Cowboys’ line to post more points, but the Aussies’ defence was magnificent and they did a brilliant job shutting out Rhinos’ threats, both on the flanks and up the middle.
North Queensland attacked only rarely, off the back of penalties, but Leeds – who had conceded 10 tries at Widnes seven days earlier – muscled up superbly.
Johnathan Thurston got away from them once to create their touchdown, but otherwise the NRL champions were harried into some errors and Rhinos scrambled with remarkable commitment, most impressively in the final couple of minutes of the half.
The prospects of an upset lasted just seven minutes after the interval, which is how long it took Cowboys to open up a 10-point lead.
From then on, with the elements in Cowboys’ favour, it was one-way traffic, though Leeds did have a late touchdown ruled out. It finished 12-a-side, with Rhinos’ Mitch Garbutt sent-off and Cowboys prop James Tamou banished to the sin-bin in the same incident.
The scale of the challenge was obvious from when the teams were named on Friday.
Rhinos lined up as announced, with Ash Handley being recalled from Featherstone to replace Tom Briscoe on the right-wing.
With Carl Ablett also out, Brad Singleton got a start at loose-forward and Josh Walters came on to the bench for his first competitive game since last year’ Grand Final.
Anthony Mullally, signed from Huddersfield Giants, was among the substitutes for his debut. It was only his second game since he suffered an ankle injury against New Zealand last October.
Rhinos’ side included only seven members of their 2015 title-winning team. Beau Falloon and Jamie Jones-Buchanan are both close to fitness, but weren’t risked.
Others on the casualty list are Ashton Golding, the third player injured in the First Utility Super League defeat at Widnes, Danny McGuire and Stevie Ward.
Rhinos went hard at the Aussies – who fielded their Grand Final 17 – early on, with Adam Cuthbertson and Keith Galloway both clearly relishing the battle against Cowboys’ pack.
It took North Queensland 13 minutes to get a sight of the Leeds line with ball in hand, Handley fumbling Thurston’s low kick a couple of metres out, but the No 7’s pass was knocked on following the scrum.
At the other end Cowboys’ defence stopped Brett Delaney, Garbutt and Brett Ferres agonisingly close, Brad Singleton was held over the line.
That was during a spell of four straight penalties to the hosts. Cowboys’ first came on 21 minutes and led to the opening try, Michael Morgan going through a gap from a well-judged pass by Thurston. The half-back took an age lining up his kick, to the anger of the crowd, before firing it wide.
Leeds knew they would have to make the most of any opportunities that came their way.
On 26 minutes Kyle Feldt knocked-on deep inside his own half, but Ferres’ offload following the scrum went straight to an opponent.
Zak Hardaker then knocked-on a tackle after a Cowboys pass, Cuthbertson was penalised for interference.
The kick took Cowboys close to Leeds’ line, but Liam Sutcliffe read Thurston’s pass brilliantly to intercept and race into the visitors’ half.
He couldn’t go all the way, but held on to the ball and with the defence struggling to regroup Burrow worked a one-two with Cuthbertson and darted over to the left of the posts.
Jordan Lilley, who had landed all three of his previous conversion attempts for the first team, sent his kick wide.
That was on 31 minutes. With two minutes of the half remaining Cowboys received a penalty in Leeds’ half, followed by a couple of repeat sets, but magnificent scrambling defence kept them out to send the sides in for the break level.
A minute into the second period Thurston picked out Handley with a high kick, the young winger spilled it and Kane Linnett went over for an easy try which Thurston improved.
Soon afterwards Burrow lost the ball trying to clear his line, Cowboys received back-to-back penalties and Thurston and Morgan linked to feed Feldt, who shrugged off Ryan Hall to finish strongly at the corner.
There was no goal, but from then on it was a question of whether Leeds could keep the score respectable.
They almost added to their tally through Garbutt and then Lilley, but Lachlan Coote was given the benefit of the doubt by video referee Matt Ceccin from Thurston’s grubber on the hour, then – after the re-start hadn’t gone 10 metres – Thurston shrugged off Kallum Watkins from Jake Granville’s pass. With 11 minutes left Justin O’Neill danced through some tired defence after Coote, Morgan and Thurston hand handled.
The game was played in a good spirit for the most part, but on 73 minutes Tamou hit out at Galloway and Garbutt retaliated to flatten the Cowboys forward.
Referee Richard Silverwood sin-binned Tamou and sent Garbutt off, which was the last thing Leeds needed with their current injury woes.
JoshWalters got over the line in the set from the penalty, but was held up and Cowboys finished with a flourish when Jake Granville’s kick created a second try for O’Neill and Thurston’s fifth goal completed the scoring.
Rhinos finished well-beaten, but there were positives in the first half and their halves Sutcliffe and Lilley could hold their heads high afterwards.
The penalty count finished 12-6 in Rhinos’ favour – 6-3 in the first half.