A LAST-GASP try earned Featherstone Rovers an 18-16 win over Leeds Rhinos in the sides’ final pre-season match.
Two good finishes sent Rovers in with an 8-0 interval lead. Leeds, playing up the slope, threw plenty at them and there was some nice build-up, but the final play was too predictable and the Featherstone defence read it well.
Rovers went 14-0 up early in the second half, but Rhinos then hit their straps and staged a remarkable rally to go two points ahead before ex-Leeds player Luke Briscoe’s try snatched victory for the Betfred Championship side.
Rovers were at full-strength other than Anthony Thackeray (concussion) and long-term casualties Jason Walton and Chris Ulugia.
Tom Holmes was their best player. He linked well with half-back Martyn Ridyard and there was also a big effort from forward John Davies.
Rhinos included two members of last year’s Grand Final-winning team and a total of 13 with Super League or NRL experience. The Leeds team wasn’t quite as strong as named with Mikolaj Oledzki and Brad Dwyer both dropping out from the expected line-up.
Oledzki wasn’t risked after suffering a shoulder injury in training and Dwyer twinged a groin against Castleford Tigers last Sunday, though neither setback is believed to be serious.
There was a concern for Leeds when prop Mitch Garbutt – one of the players in contention for Thursday’s Betfred Super League opener at Warrington Wolves – hobbled off in the second half.
Of the first team contenders, Nathaniel Peteru ran strongly and Ashton Golding, Josh Walters, Jordan Lilley and Ash Handley all had good moments. Leeds included several 16- year-olds and physically their youngsters coped well against quality opposition.
Walters went close for Leeds early on, making a superb break up the slope and skipping past full-back Ian Hardman, before being tackled almost on the line by Josh Hardcastle.
Anthony Mullally was then held up over it by Hardman. That came moments after Hardman’s opposite number Golding stood his ground to make a try-saving tackle on Davies, who had been put into a gap by Holmes’ well-judged pass.
Golding started at full-back, but moved to acting-half when Jack Walker came off the bench, allowing Leeds to give a breather to pacy first-year academy hooker, Cory Johnson.
Davies wasn’t to be denied on 20 minutes when he forced his way over to complete a fine move begun by Ridyard’s pass and involving James Lockwood, Luke Cooper and Hardcastle.
Davies is a consistently impressive player for Rovers and he made successive tackles to keep Garbutt and Jimmy Keinhorst out before Gareth Hock came off the bench for his first Rovers appearance and – without looking match fit – immediately caused Leeds problems.
He was involved in the build-up to the hosts’ second try, scored by Holmes from Hardcastle’s pass on 32 minutes.
Holmes added a second 10 minutes into the second half. His break and kick almost set-up Matty Wildie, but he was pulled down just short, only for the former Castleford man to dart over from acting-half .
After two missed conversion attempts by Ridyard, Hardman took over and added the two to make it 14-0.
Walker and big academy forward Tyler Dupree were tackled just short before Johnson – who had just come back on and looks to have real potential – forced his way over from acting-half for a try which Lilley improved.
That was on 57 minutes and seven later Lilley’s kick wasn’t dealt with over the line and 16-year-old winger Ben Markland touched down.
Lilley landed a touchline conversion and Leeds went in front with five left through another youngster, Dakota Whylie, who finished well at the corner from Handley’s pass.
That should have been enough, but Leeds lost their composure, twice turned the ball over near their own line and in time added on, Luke Briscoe – brother of Rhinos winger Tom – dived over to win it against his former club.
Barry Eaton, who coached Rhinos on the night, was “really pleased”, despite the result.
He said: “We started with some decent personnel in the pack and they laid a decent platform and when the young players came on, certainly in the last 20 minutes, we looked really strong.
“It was a physical test and some of the young ones stood up to that.”
Eaton said Garbutt suffered a dead leg and will be assessed, but initial indications are it is not serious.
Rovers boss John Duffy said: “We started the game really well and then got a little bit loose, but I was happy with our first 40 minutes.
“We got a bit sloppy at times in the second half, but all credit to Leeds – they’ve got some great young kids.
“There’s things we can work on, but I am really happy.”
Featherstone Rovers: Hardman, Briscoe, Hardcastle, Taulapapa, Robinson, Ridyard, Holmes, Wheeldon, Carlile, Brooks, Farrell, Davies, Mariano. Subs Lockwood, Maskill, Cooper, Knowles, Wildie, Gale, Hock, Moore.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding, Whylie, Handley, Keinhorst, Newman, Lilley, Spence, Garbutt, Johnson, Peteru, Walters, Ormondroyd, Mullally. Subs Walker, Smith, Markland, Dupree, Trout, Holroyd.
Referee: John McMullen (Wigan).