A very young Leeds Rhinos side retained the Lazenby Cup as they toughed out a 10-6 win over Hunslet Hawks at South Leeds Stadium.
Just getting the game on was a triumph for Hawks, who took all the gate receipts and needed the fixture as a major boost to their bank balance.
After clearing the pitch during the week, Hawks staff and helpers had to repeat the feat on Saturday, a case of “we’ve swept the snows before boys so we shall again.”
The snow piled up all around the side of the pitch illustrated the size of the task accomplished, but the Hunslet team couldn’t rise to their challenge in a similar manner.
Hawks’ starting line-up included 10 players from their first 13 in squad number terms and they will feel they should have done better against such young opposition.
The Championship hosts –who managed just one try in the match, eight minutes from time – used 20 players, to Rhinos’ 18 and numerous changes had an effect, though they also looked badly in need of minutes under their belt.
Off the back of Leeds’ errors, the home side applied steady pressure in the third quarter, but their failure to carve out more than one clear chance during that spell must be a concern.
The positive for Hunslet was an outstanding defensive effort, which saw them concede just two tries and keep Leeds from adding to their tally after the break.
It wasn’t an ideal surface for running rugby, but Leeds’ youngsters went with their natural instincts and defied the conditions to play some sparkling stuff in the first half, though they were on the back foot for most of the second period as they struggled to complete sets.
Liam Suttcliffe displayed obvious ability at stand-off and Jordan Baldwinson – another who got a taste in the Boxing Day win over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – got through some impressive work at prop. The energetic Alex Foster looks like another one to watch out for and big forward Mason Tonks didn’t let things slide when he came off the bench to replace Mitch Achurch in the first half.
Rhinos’ side included all four players who are joining Hawks on dual-registration: full-back Jimmy Watson, Josh Sunley, centre Jimmy Keinhorst and hooker Liam Hood.
Keinhorst – a Wembley finalist last year – and Hood were among four players with Super League experience in the Leeds line-up, alongside Richard Moore and Stevie Ward – though Aussie recruit Achurch has played in the NRL.
Moore (double hernia) and Grand Final winner Ward (shoulder) both made their first appearance since off-season surgery and came through unscathed.
Ward got stronger as the game went on, defending solidly and displaying some nice touches.
Game time was the priority for Moore and he drove the ball in pretty strongly, though his highlight came at the end of the first quarter when he conceded a penalty for interference near his own line and then redeemed himself with a crunching tackle which jarred the ball loose from Luke Haigh.
Hawks boss Barry Eaton will have been pretty pleased with what he saw from the players who are set to join his team this week.
Hood, who played in the Championship on dual-registration with Dewsbury Rams last season, stood out with some smart work from dummy-half and Keinhorst gave Hawks a glimpse of what he can do early on with a lovely ball to his winger Jacob Morgan, who was crashed into touch by winger Lee Brickwood.
And Eaton won’t have known whether to laugh or cry when his side were hit by friendly fire for both the first-half tries as Leeds took a 10-0 interval lead.
A wonderful offload from Achurch sent Luke Briscoe speeding away and the England academy centre supplied the ball to Watson, who turned opposite number Stuart Kain inside out before crossing at the corner for an excellent long-range score after 10 minutes.
Sunley is the least experienced of the dual-registration quartet, but his superb pass almost created a second Leeds try, only for Ward to be denied by Kain’s textbook tackle.
Though he made a series of errors, those in the know at Headingley think Sunley – who started on the wing, but also popped up at full-back – could develop into something special if he continues to learn and improve.
His quick-thinking registered the second score 10 minutes from the break when he ran on to Ben White’s last tackle kick and did well to acrobatically touch the ball down before it went dead.
Morgan converted the second touchdown and the interval score was a fair reflection of the way the half went.
Hunslet had one opportunity in the opening period, when David March’s kick was scrambled dead by Watson.
Another kick, this time by the lively Danny Grimshaw, should have pulled a try back on 51, but Kain spilled the ball over the line.
Rhinos turned the ball over continuously near their own line as they began to tire in the third quarter allowing Hawks, with Grimshaw pulling the strings, to apply intense pressure – though they lacked a cutting edge in the face of gritty Leeds defence.
The penalty count finished 9-9 as the rather pointless and frustrating clamp down on incorrect play-the-ball continued.
Briscoe was very harshly penalised for such an offence near Hawks’ line with seven to go – the award could have gone the other way for interference – and in the resulting set Hunslet finally found a way through as John Oakes galloped over from a pass by Danny Ansell, who converted.
That at least set up a tense finale, though Leeds went closest to scoring again, through Baldwinson.
Hunslet Hawks: Kain, Mapals, Nathaniel, Welham, Brickwood, Grimshaw, Helliwell, Houston, Haigh, Menzies, Haughey, Oakes, March. Subs (all used): Hughes, Windley, Ansell, Yates, Clayton, Dooler, Pryce.
Leeds Rhinos: Watson, Sunley, Briscoe, Keinhorst, Morgan, Suttcliffe, White, Moore, Hood, Baldwinson, Achurch, Foster, S Ward. Subs (all used): McAvoy, Cockerham, Tonks, R Ward, Harper.