THERE IS one positive in Leeds Rhinos’ final game of the Qualifiers, against Leigh Centurions being brought forward to Thursday night.
The change means Rhinos’ dreadful season will end 24 hours sooner than originally planned.
A two-month, eight-game winning run had threatened to mask what a dismal campaign it has been for last year’s treble-winners.
But, after a flourish at the end of the Super League rounds, Rhinos’ performances have been dipping for several weeks and yesterday’s clash with Huddersfield Giants was a return to the dark days of April and May.
With their top-flight status for next year already assured, Rhinos were out-played and out-enthused for an hour, before staging a late rally which had relegation-threatened Huddersfield wobbling.
The 22-14 final score flattered Leeds, whose points all came in the final 21 minutes after Giants had gone 20-0 ahead.
Both teams scored three tries, but Huddersfield were better in every department for the majority of the game; they ran stronger, tackled harder and were more disciplined.
Leeds looked as though they can’t wait for their autumn break, but – frustratingly – when they did start to play they had Giants on the ropes.
Leeds made a host of basic errors with the ball at both ends of the field and for most of the game struggled to apply any pressure to a defence which had conceded 48 points to Leigh Centurions eight days earlier – 42 of those in the first half.
Rhinos began with a strong team, but lost four players to injury as the game went on.
Rhinos had to reshuffle in the first quarter after Carl Ablett took a knock and went off. Joel Moon came on in the centres and Jimmy Keinhorst switched to the pack.
At half-time Ashton Golding came on at full-back and Liam Sutcliffe moved into the halves, in place of Jordan Lilley.
Less than a minute into the second half they were reduced to 15 fit players when Keith Galloway hobbled off with an injury to his right ankle and Rob Burrow, already with his head bandaged, limped off in the final moments.
Ash Handley made his first appearance of the Qualifiers, on the left-wing in place of Ryan Hall, who was rested due to a hamstring problem.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan moved from loose-forward to prop, replacing Galloway, so Stevie Ward stepped up for his first start since the fateful win at Huddersfield 51 weeks earlier.
Unusually, Galloway was one of only two forwards on the bench, alongside Adam Cuthbertson.
Moon returned from a one-game lay-off due to a groin problem and Golding kept his place.
Anthony Mullally dropped out and Danny McGuire, Brett Delaney and Mitch Garbutt remained on the casualty list.
Giants went ahead after 10 minutes, following a scrum in Leeds territory. Ryan Brierley almost found a way through, but was dragged down by a superb tackle from Jones-Buchanan.
On the next play Tom Symonds swung the ball to the right and Leroy Cudjoe crashed over.
Along with Scott Grix, Symonds and Brierley were both called up to strengthen Giants’ side following the debacle at Leigh and they made a significant difference.
Danny Brough could not convert, but within four minutes Leeds were caught offside at a scrum near Giants’ line, penalised again for a ball steal by Jones-Buchanan and Brough took the two.
Rhinos didn’t manage to put Giants under any real pressure in the first half, as errors at both ends of the field made life easy for the hosts.
A towering kick by Lilley did force a drop out midway through the half, but Jones-Buchanan knocked on in the resulting set.
Leeds’ poor discipline didn’t help then either.
With 10 minutes remaining in the half, a penalty for interference carried Giants upfield, James Segeyaro was penalised for an off-the-ball challenge and Brough made it 8-0.
Rhinos were unfortunate moments later when Keinhorst carried the ball up, it came free and Segeyaro picked up to scoot clear. Referee Ben Thaler halted play and awarded Rhinos the feed at the scrum, then three successive penalties.
Brad Singleton – making his 100th Leeds appearance – was held up over the line, Joe Wardle made a tremendous tackle to keep Brett Ferres out and Cuthbertson crashed into a post pad trying to reach over. With tackles still in the bag, Segeyaro hurled the ball to Jake Connor to end the siege, Aaron Murphy broke up the middle and Brierley was in support to score.
Brough added the extras and Giants could have been even further in front, but Murphy fumbled the No 6’s kick on the Leeds line.
Six minutes into the second period Giants scored again. Leeds turned the ball over inside their own half, conceded successive goal line drop outs and then a penalty and eventually Brough crossed between the posts for a try which he also converted to make it 20-0. Leeds haven’t been nilled since the final game of the 1998 regular season, on September 27, 1998, when they lost 42-0 at Halifax.
For almost an hour it looked as though they might be shut out, but a couple of penalties and a scrum near Giants’ line eventually paid off as Cuthbertson crashed over and Sutcliffe converted.
In the next set,Ferres supplied Kallum Watkins and he sent Briscoe dashing away. The winger had support inside, but opted instead to kick ahead.
He won the race to touch down before the ball went dead, but the try was scored wide out and Sutcliffe could not add the extras.
Huddersfield looked vulnerable at that stage, but Brough steadied the ship with a penalty goal eight minutes from time.
That proved crucial as Leeds struck again almost immediately when Handley dived over spectacularly at the corner – too far out for Sutcliffe to convert – from Keinhorst’s pass after Moon had created an overlap.
Segeyaro was placed on report in the second half – conceding the penalty which led to Brough’s try – after allegedly tackling Connor around the face.
The penalty count finished 12-11 in Leeds’ favour. It was 6-1 to Giants early on and 7-4 against Leeds in the first half.