SPIRIT ISN’T enough.
Leeds Rhinos played with their hearts in last night’s 36-22 Ladbrokes Challenge Cup defeat at Huddersfield Giants, but not their heads.
Having lost 28-20 to the same opponents in First Utility Super League exactly a week earlier, Rhinos knew it would be a tough game, but one they were capable of winning if they played well. With a couple of key men back, and having improved over the past couple of weeks, there were reasons to think Rhinos could come up with a performance to turn their season around.
Instead, they took a couple of steps back and it was possibly the most depressing defeat in a season of them.
Giants were comfortably the better team and Rhinos’ two-year unbeaten run in the competition ended with little more than a whimper.
It was five tries to four, which was closer than the previous week, but still not enough.
Leeds produced plenty of effort, but they had no structure in attack and an horrendous series of errors put their defence under huge pressure, with which it could not cope.
Poor discipline cost Leeds, who seem unable to defend penalty sets and they look like a team who have forgotten how to win.
Rhinos opened the scoring after 59 seconds, in the first set of the game, but Huddersfield – once they had levelled – were always in control and by the end they were taking the Mickey, though Leeds did keep fighting to the last.
Jordan Lilley began the move for the opening try, ghosting into space.
He isn’t the quickest, but he has line-breaking ability and if players are supporting him that can be a real threat.
Ashton Golding, who was born on the same day and has played alongside Lilley from their earliest days in the game, knows that.
He backed up and supplied Brett Ferres, who could have gone himself but slipped the ball away to Jimmy Keinhorst, who crossed in the corner. Lilley landed a wonderful touchline goal.
Golding was named on the wing, but started at full-back with the returning Man of Steel on the left-flank.
The presence of Hardaker and Adam Cuthbertson, on the bench, gave Rhinos’ 17 a stronger look than in the past couple of weeks, reducing their casualty list to a mere eight names.
Hardaker, though, looked to be struggling and Cuthbertson’s first contribution was to offload to an opponent, before he gave away a penalty with a high shot.
Luke Briscoe dropped to the bench, as did Mitch Achurch. Brad Singleton was left out altogether, with Cameron Smith – who made his debut – being the other player omitted from last week’s team.
Josh Walters’ reward for his try in the league game was a start in the second-row.
Giants promoted Jake Connor to the starting line-up in place of Gene Ormsby, a try scorer last week, who has been recalled from his loan by Warrington Wolves.
Sam Wood came in on the bench.
Keinhorst’s try was the perfect start, but things went downhill after that as the visitors struggled to complete a set in Giants’ half, despite being well supplied with penalties.
Twice they lost the ball near the hosts’ line and within seconds were lined up behind their own posts, watching the outstanding Danny Brough taking a conversion.
An inability to defend when they are penalised has been a major issue for Rhinos this year. They conceded three penalties – one a double for dissent and another on the final tackle 20 out – and almost inevitably were punished when Ukuma Ta’ai stormed over from a pass by Brough, who converted. Ferres turned the ball over after successive early penalties and then Jamie Jones-Buchanan did the same a metre out.
Giants countered, with Nathan Mason leading the charge and then Brough and Leroy Cudjoe linked to send Jermaine McGillvary over for a well-taken try, which Brough improved.
Moments later Golding was smashed by Connor after taking a high kick. Referee Ben Thaler awarded a penalty and put the incident on report and Walters knocked-on in the subsequent attack.
Giants missed chances when Ryan Brierley made a break from a penalty, but kicked in-field and Ferres tidied up, then McGillvary knocked on from Brough’s kick before Cudjoe touched down.
Giants’ third try summed up Rhinos’ dire season. Three minutes before the break – in a set from a penalty – Ferres looked to be going over from Rob Burrow’s pass, but the ball came loose in Sam Rapira’s tackle.
Cudjoe picked up and supplied McGillvary, he passed to Ryan Brierley and the full-back went the length of the field to score.
Ironically, both Rapira and Brierley were linked with Leeds before joining Giants instead. Brough converted, after Ferres had been sin-binned, for dissent. He presumably felt the ball had been stripped in a two-man tackle.
Brough converted and then Connor landed a scruffy drop goal, taking a deflection off a defender, on the final play of the half.
Lilley has become an interception king in the last few games.
He did it again five minutes into the second half, from a Brough pass.
Brierley made the tackle, but Liam Sutcliffe twisted over from close range and the scrum-half improved to cut the gap to seven points, briefly. Leeds conceded a penalty just three minutes after the try and Cudjoe, who had a superb game, put Kyle Wood over.
Leeds hit back again, almost immediately, with a good try.
Sutcliffe’s pass sent Cuthbertson charging into space and he fired out a long pass which Keinhorst crossed from, too far out for Lilley to goal.
Leeds conceded five successive penalties either side of the break and were placed on a team warning. Brough kicked the fifth of them.
Ref Ben Thaler is similar to Leeds, he was all-conquering last year, but has got nowhere near that standard this season. The penalty count finished 11-11 (7-6 to Leeds in the first half).
Brough scored a solo try, though there was a hint of an obstruction and added the extras before booting a drop goal and missing with a long-range penalty, before adding another one-pointer.
Leeds had the minor consolation of scoring the final try, Anthony Mullally barging over against his former club and Lilley booting his third conversion.
Brough landed another drop goal in the final minute.
So Rhinos’ reign as Cup holders is over. They play Castleford Tigers on Thursday and if they lose that, they can start planning for the middle-eights.
The Rhinos fans who made up the majority of the poor 4,979 crowd deserve better.