OUTPLAYED FOR more than an hour and seemingly out on their feet, Leeds Rhinos achieved something special in a remarkable final 15 minutes in Perpignan.
Leeds pulled a game they had not looked capable of winning out of the fire with three late converted tries to seal a significant and uplifting 30-24 conquering of stunned Catalans Dragons.
It was one of Rhinos’ best victories since their treble triumph in 2015. Not the performance, but the determination and will to win and the way some players who had been poor for parts of the game stepped up and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Catalans were the better team for the majority of the contest and were left shattered at the end. They were angry with the match officials and some key calls definitely went against them. But they were unable to shake off a dogged Leeds team and though they twice led by 10 points, that is not a huge gap to overcome in the modern game. Leeds proved that by going from 22-12 down after 65 minutes to 24-22 ahead just four minutes later.
Catalans levelled inside the final 10 and the 1,000 or so Rhinos fans who made the trip to Perpignan would probably have settled for a point, but a moment of magic won it. Danny McGuire had a difficult opening 40, but stepped up magnificently after the break. He twice denied Catalans with crucial tackles and set up Adam Cuthbertson’s reviving try, all be it with a big slice of luck.
Then with less than six minutes left the captain dummied and jinked through the defence from close to the line, after a charge by Cuthbertson had put Rhinos on the front foot, to score the decisive try. Liam Sutcliffe’s fifth conversion ensured Leeds would come away with at least a point and they survived the final couple of minutes with no real alarms, even managing to deal with Catalans’ short restart.
Catalans will feel it was a game they lost rather than Leeds won. They twice took what should have been a winning lead and on two occasions seemed to have scored, but were denied by the video referee.
But they ran out of troops late on. Greg Bird went off with a head wound in the opening moments and didn’t return and try scorers Louis Anderson and Brayden Wiliame also failed to go the distance.
Bird’s loss was ironic considering what happened in the sides’ previous meeting when he was taken out by Leeds prop Brad Singleton who later collected a six-game ban.
This time there was nothing illegal involved and his replacement Julian Bousquet had an outstanding match for the hosts, though his failure to convert a couple of second half chances – particularly when he was tackled in possession by McGuire on the last just before Cuthbertson’s touchdown – proved costly.
Remi Casty also had a big game and Lucas Albert, who replaced the suspended Luke Walsh at scrum-half, showed what a high-quality young player he is.
Rhinos knew they were in for a tough afternoon, but Catalans’ style of play seemed to catch them by surprise.
The week before at Wakefield Trinity, Catalans had dominated possession and territory in the first half, but lacked bite on attack.
This time they offloaded at every opportunity and their finishing in the opening 40 minutes was clinical as they targeted Leeds’ right-edge.
Catalans received four penalties in the first half and scored a try from three of them and had one ruled out by referee Jack Smith and video assistant Robert Hicks from the other.
Leeds defended pretty well in Catalans’ territory, but looked vulnerable every time the French team got in their 20. The injuries took their toll late on, but Rhinos had to be good enough to take advantage and they were.
Cuthbertson led the way, setting a platform for McGuire to work behind. There were also notable contributions from Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Stevie Ward in the second-row.
Both, in sapping heat, played the full 80 minutes. Brett Delaney, who was among the substitutes, took a bang to the head and was unable to go back on.
Ashton Golding did well at full-back on his return from injury and his tackle which prevented Tony Gigot getting the ball down over the line at the start of the second half was important.
That was good work by the officials as the near-side touchjudge stood his ground, Smith indicated no try and Hicks confirmed that.
Gigot also had a touchdown ruled out by Hicks in the first half, due to an obstruction by Anderson.
Liam Sutcliffe was another Leeds player back in the team after injury. He marked his 100th Rhinos appearance with an early try – making a good catch from McGuire’s kick.
He found the going tough in the first half, but had a better time of it after the break and – crucially – landed five conversions from as many attempts, including a cracker off the touchline to edge Leeds 24-22 ahead.
Rhinos gave a Betfred Super League debut to 18-year-old front-rower Mikolaj Oledzki, who had a short stint at the start of the second half. Half-back Jordan Lilley was an unused substitute.
The absence of England duo Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall, along with Mitch Garbutt on paternity leave, made the two points even better.
Sutcliffe was at centre alongside Joel Moon, who switched from stand-off, with Ash Handley moving to a wing.
Leeds benefited from the officials missing the fact McGuire’s try-creating pass to Cuthbertson was forward, but so was one in the build-up to Bousquet’s first-half try. The penalty count was 7-4 in Leeds’ favour in the first half and finished 11-11.
Sutcliffe’s try got Leeds off to a flying start, but Anderson, Bousquet and Wiliame went over, Gigot adding two goals, before Ward twisted in on the stroke of half-time.
The conversion cut Catalans’ interval lead to 16-12, but they looked likely winners when Casty went over and Gigot converted on 52 minutes. But, on 65 minutes – soon after a video referee ruling had gone against Handley – Cuthbertson powered over and in the next set Rob Burrow, Jones-Buchanan, Moon and Handley handled and Burrow – who started in at the halves went over at the corner.
Gigot landed an angled penalty with seven minutes left, but McGuire’s try came almost immediately.
Leeds hadn’t played well overall, but this was one of those occasions when the result was more important than the performance.
Jack Williams, who was replaced at full-back by Golding, played for Rhinos under-19s in a 36-12 loss to Catalans in the curtain-raiser.
Tyler Dupree and Harvey Whiteley scored Leeds’ tries, both converted by Tom Schofield.