Leeds Rhinos dig deep to see off Salford Red Devils 22-8 - Peter Smith's verdict

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A couple of minutes before half-time at AJ Bell Stadium, the situation appeared bleak for Leeds Rhinos.

Down 8-0, they had done a huge amount of work – against the majority of possession and territory – and showed little sign of being able to deal with either the stormy conditions or a Salford Red Devils side who were playing well.

Then came a moment of fortune. A kick by Rob Lui rebounded off a defender and referee Marcus Griffiths ruled a charge down, signalling six more tackles.

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Out of nothing, Brad Dwyer opened a gap and Luke Gale was in support to race over for a reviving try on the final play of the half.

Mikolaj Oledzki touches down against Salford.Mikolaj Oledzki touches down against Salford.
Mikolaj Oledzki touches down against Salford.

The acting-captain added the conversion and suddenly the second half looked a very different proposition.

That started badly when Salford did what Rhinos had failed to, made use of the wind as Joey Lussick landed a tremendous 40-20.

The visitors were under heavy pressure for a spell, but survived and suddenly got to grips with the game.

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A kick by Lui, playing against his previous club and superb chase from Gale and Richie Myler forced a drop-out and off that Leeds fashioned a fine try, the two halves linking before Harry Newman’s pass found Luke Briscoe and he touched down acrobatically at the corner.

Luke Gale get Leeds Rhinos back into the game at Salford.Luke Gale get Leeds Rhinos back into the game at Salford.
Luke Gale get Leeds Rhinos back into the game at Salford.

That was on 51 minutes and five minutes later Mikolaj Oledzki crashed over from Adam Cuthbertson’s offload. Gale converted and added a penalty soon afterwards and unexpectedly Leeds were 10 points ahead which, in difficult conditions, was more than enough.

The transformation from their poor first-half effort was remarkable and the eventual 22-8 victory built on different foundations to Leeds’ 52-10 thrashing of Hull KR eight days earlier.

Having shown their flair that evening, Leeds had to dig much deeper. They didn’t play as well, but it was a terrific effort to come back after conceding the first two tries and the way they managed the game, took opportunities and defended their line in the second period was very encouraging.

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Leeds’ 12-point burst came on the back of three successive penalties which infuriated the home crowd, particularly as Rhinos had received a similar number – in just successive plays – at the end of the opening period.

Jack Walker scores his try against Salford.Jack Walker scores his try against Salford.
Jack Walker scores his try against Salford.

Referee Griffiths was on the end of a barrage of abuse from a section of home fans, but that was unfair.

The charge down call was a big moment and supporters behind the posts felt Niall Evalds was tackled in the air when he conceded the crucial drop out, but the penalty count finished all square at eight-each and the official was not to blame for Salford’s defeat.

After Rhinos had gone 18-8 ahead Salford received five penalties in quick succession and, with 12 minutes left, there was time for Salford to get back on terms if they managed one score.

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Leeds, though, scrambled and protected their line strongly, then Ava Seumanufagai pounced on a loose pass to turn defence into attack.

Ash Handley holds off former Rhinos player Tui Lolohea.Ash Handley holds off former Rhinos player Tui Lolohea.
Ash Handley holds off former Rhinos player Tui Lolohea.

Konrad Hurrell made a break, Ash Handley was in support and he turned the ball inside to Jack Walker who went over to put the result beyond doubt.

That was credit to Rhinos’ spirit and it proved they can counter-attack and score long-range tries, both of which were an issue last season.

Both teams actually played better against the gale. Rhinos knocked on from the kick-off and managed to complete only one of their first five sets. When they did manage to get to a kick, it was generally a poor one and they rarely threatened before Gale’s try, though Rob Lui almost reached his own kick before the ball rolled dead.

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Salford handled the conditions much better and were the superior team in the opening 40, despite some disruption. Already without Dan Sarginson, Krisnan Inu, who has a history of playing well against Leeds, started at centre, but was injured early on, which clearly affected the home team, who also suffered a couple of head knocks.

Even so, they scored a well-worked try when Tui Lolohea sent Evalds slicing past Gale and then Lolohea, the former Leeds stand-off, ploughed over the top of Gale and Handley to double their lead.

Pauli Pauli, the ex-Wakefield Trinity prop, was causing Rhinos all manner of problems with his strong running and Tyrone McCarthy also threatened, being denied on one occasion by a fantastic tackle from Dwyer.

Ava Seumanufagai tries to force a gap in the Salford defence.Ava Seumanufagai tries to force a gap in the Salford defence.
Ava Seumanufagai tries to force a gap in the Salford defence.

An 8-0 deficit at the interval would have been a difficult one to bridge, so Gale’s try turned the game.

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After that, Leeds played well. They finally got to grips with the conditions and their kicking game was much-improved.

Game management was very good once they got in front and, other than the nap hand of penalties, they didn’t offer Salford a way back.

Lussick has a habit of scoring against Rhinos and made a series of darts from acting-half, but the defence had his number.

Leeds’ finishing, as against Hull KR, was clinical once they settled down and only two tries conceded in each of their past two games is a positive sign, though Warrington Wolves will pose a much sterner test this week.

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Rhinos also seem to be coping well with some injury woes. Dom Crosby and Kruise Leeming were both expected to be available by now, but remain on the long-term casualty list.

Tom Briscoe is getting closer to a return, though his brother Luke’s form will give boss Richard Agar something to think about, but they were without two first-choice second-rowers against Salford, skipper Stevie Ward (concussion) missing a third successive game and vice-captain Rhyse Martin being sidelined for the second week following minor surgery.

Then Liam Sutcliffe, who switched from centre to second-row for the Hull KR game, failed a fitness test on a knee injury, so James Donaldson stepped up from the bench and Alex Sutcliffe was drafted in as a substitute.

There was one new concern towards the end of the game when Handley, who had just helped create Walker’s try, was taken off to rest a sore knee.

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Sutcliffe’s positional switch last week led to Newman being moved from right-wing to centre and he has been outstanding in both games since.

He was perhaps the only player to impress in the first half and he maintained that form throughout.

He was physical, had a couple of good runs and did well with his pass for Briscoe’s touchdown.

Cameron Smith was strong early on, Oledzki made a more than useful contribution – not least his try – and Walker did a decent job in testing circumstances at the back, so – with Alex Sutcliffe getting his call-up – it was a good day for Leeds’ youngsters.