AVAILABLE EVIDENCE before their Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final meeting suggested Hull didn’t know how to – or believe they could – beat Leeds Rhinos.
Leeds, it seemed, had the Indian sign over their East Yorkshire rivals, having won the previous eight encounters.
Even when Rhinos were at their lowest point, last season, they managed to beat Hull twice.
So much for that theory. In a semi-final the result is all that matters so any defeat is disappointing, but in this one Leeds were convincingly out-played, out-thought and out-enthused.
It was Rhinos’ most disappointing performance in a big game since the 2010 Challenge Cup final, when they were taken to the cleaners by Warrington Wolves.
Leeds led twice and were only six points adrift at half-time, but Hull were the better team from start to finish – marginally in the opening 40 and thoroughly after the break.
Hull played like Rhinos have in their four previous Challenge Cup semi-finals under coach Brian McDermott.
They got their game plan spot on. Their forwards muscled up, both half-backs ran the show and their finishing, one bad miss apart, was top-class.
It wasn’t quite a faultless performance, but they made few errors and were very disciplined. They starved Leeds of possession and field position in the second half and the 19-point margin was a fair reflection of their dominance.
Leeds offered very little, other than solid effort. Hull seemed to know exactly what Leeds were going to do and how to stop it.
Rhinos’ attack was one-dimensional – five drives and a kick – and though they defended well for large parts, several lapses were ruthlessly exploited.
When Leeds did open up they got some joy, but it didn’t happen often enough.
Their first two tries were down to brilliant finishing by Ryan Hall from pin-point kicks. They also produced the best move of the first half when Danny McGuire and Stevie Ward found Kallum Watkins and he played a one-two with Tom Briscoe, but the final pass went behind McGuire into touch.
McGuire, in what turned out to be his final Cup tie for Leeds, could not have done much more. His chip and chase and then low kick almost led to a try for Briscoe in the second half.
Not long after that his grubber set up a well-taken try for Kallum Watkins which, very briefly, threatened to get Leeds back in the game.
Watkins had a strong game going forward, when he had the opportunity and also landed three conversions from as many attempts, including one off the touchline.
Hall also left the field with his head held high. It was the fourth different semi-final in which he has scored a brace of tries, Leeds having won the previous three.
He doesn’t score the number of touchdowns he used to, but he’s still a reliable big-game player. He did brilliantly to reach Joel Moon’s kick ahead of Mahe Fonua and get the ball down, edging Leeds ahead after 18 minutes.
His second try was even better, somehow grounding the ball before the whitewash from Watkins’ kick after the centre had run across field close to Hull’s line.
That made it 12-6, but the Leeds fans – who were outnumbered in a 14,526 full house – had little to cheer after that.
Inevitably, Briscoe will be Rhinos’ scapegoat. He was targeted all afternoon by Sneyd and didn’t cope.
He got away with one early on, Mark Minichiello’s subsequent touchdown being disallowed by video referee Robert Hicks due to an obstruction by Danny Houghton, but he failed to take a kick before Hull’s first try.
He later did well to prevent a touchdown by getting a hand to a pass from Carlos Tuimavave which might have put Fetuli Talanoa in, though Hull scored following the scrum.
Another kick to Briscoe’s flank led to Hull’s first try in the second half; he was penalised in a similar situation allowing Sneyd to knock over a drop goal and the try which ended Rhinos’ hopes also came after Hull put boot to ball to test Leeds’ right side.
It was reminiscent of Leroy Rivett 17 years ago. His Rhinos career never recovered after similar punishment in the Cup final, 12 months after a four-try Lance Todd Trophy-winning performance at Wembley.
Briscoe famously broke Rivett’s record with five touchdowns in the 2015 final and it will be a shame if he suffers the same fate.
The former Hull man has endured other tough days this year and his confidence has clearly been damaged.
Rival coaches will have noted where Hull had their success and he probably needs to be taken out of the firing line for a while.
He shouldn’t be written off on the basis of this performance, but work needs to be done to get him back to the standard he was at two years ago.
How Leeds manage him in the wake of the semi-final will be crucial.
Briscoe’s vulnerability under kicks was an Achilles heel, but he should have been given more protection and Leeds’ inability to close down Sneyd, in particular, was a major factor.
Rhinos could not blame injuries for their defeat. They were without Rob Burrow, Keith Galloway and Brett Delaney – who is back running in training – and Liam Sutcliffe was 18th man, but it was a strong team.
Brett Ferres returned following knee surgery, though it looked a week too early and the eight players rested against Wigan the week before all featured in the starting line-up.
That selection now looks like a gamble which backfired.
Hull made just one change, bringing back Albert Kelly after a calf injury. He caused Leeds constant problems and stepped through from close-range for Hull’s opening try.
He linked with Sneyd to create the second for Tuimavave and offloaded to Chris Green on the stroke of half-time for the third. That was a key moment in the game.
Poor second halves have been a feature of Rhinos’ season. Sneyd’s kick was palmed on to Tuimavave by Talanoa and Sneyd added his one-pointer before Watkins crossed. Leeds were caught napping after each of their tries and Liam Watts went over soon afterwards. Jamie Shaul collected Watkins’ low kick to go the length of the field and Scott Taylor touched down after Rhinos failed to send the restart 10 metres.
Ashton Golding scored his first try of the season, converted by Jordan Lilley, in the final moments.
Other than missing the forward pass which led to Green’s try, referee Phil Bentham had a good game. There was just one penalty each in the first half and the count finished six-three in Hull’s favour.