LEEDS RHINOS came out on top in a bizarre, topsy-turvy game at Hull KR to extend their remarkable record of opening day wins in Super League.
Rhinos have lost their first match just twice in 20 seasons, the last occasion being way back in 2000, but few of those victories have been as gritty or controversial as this one.
Leeds scored first and last, but were 14 points adrift twice in between.
Their fightback was impressive, but aided by some dubious calls from the match officials.
Rovers’ halves, Terry Campese and Albert Kelly, were dominant in the first half. Three of Rovers’ tries before the break came directly off the boot and the other following a penalty for obstruction from another kick.
After half-time Leeds gave away an interception try away, rode their luck for a while and hit back to go four points in front before sealing a 40-30 win and precious two points in the final moments.
Captain Kevin Sinfield’s performance summed things up for Leeds. He made some strange errors, but was involved in all the visitors’ best moments.
Danny McGuire had a fine game,scoring twice and handling in several of Leeds’ other tries and in the pack Stevie Ward, Carl Ablett and Paul Aiton, in his second spell, shone.
With the ball, Leeds looked good at times and they also defended strongly for the most part, when the home team weren’t putting the boot in.
The opening game of the campaign was a battle between new and old, change and stability.
Rhinos’ side included 14 of the players on duty in their previous competitive game, the play-offs defeat to Catalans Dragons last September.
Ryan Bailey, Brett Delaney – who has an ankle injury – and Liam Sutcliffe, unlucky not to be selected based on his pre-season form, were the three who didn’t feature.
The additions to that team were Mitch Achurch, Brad Singleton and the only player making his first appearance, Adam Cuthbertson.
By contrast, 11 of Rovers’ 17 were making their debut, though Bailey wasn’t among them. The ex-Leeds man was named in the initial 19-man squad, but didn’t make the team after struggling with an Achilles problem.
Rhinos drew first blood inside two minutes, when a penalty for a high tackle on Ryan Hall carried Leeds upfield and Tom Briscoe got over at the corner from Kallum Watkins’ pass after McGuire and Sinfield had handled.
The lead was short lived though. At the end of Rovers’ next set, Campese kicked to the corner, Hall failed to take – under pressure from Darrell Goulding and Kelly touched down for a try which Italian international Josh Mantellato converted.
Then a couple of minutes later Mantellato made a break, but was hauled down by Briscoe.
Graeme Horne got over from Kelly’s kick, only for referee Ben Thaler to rule no try, but award the hosts a penalty for obstruction on a chaser.
From that, Mitchell Allgood was too quick and powerful for the defence, thundering over for Rovers’ second touchdown, from Adam Walker’s offload, which Mantellato also improved.
On 15 minutes Kelly stabbed a kick through and Thaler called a drop-out, saying Zak Hardaker took the ball dead, though he was adamant he had a foot over the line.
It was a costly call for the visitors as they cracked to yet another last tackle play, this time Kelly reading Campese’s kick to perfection to gather and touchdown between the posts.
The third goal made it 18-4 and Leeds were all at sea, being out-enthused, out-thought and starved of the ball.
When they did get it, they scored with ease, after 17. McGuire and Sinfield worked the ball to Watkins and he cut through a static defence before returning the ball to his skipper, who added the extras.
And Leeds scored again on 25, though there was a suspicion of a knock-on at the start of the move and a forward pass later on.
The home fans were furious, but they need to learn if they yell “forward” after every pass, it tends to lose its impact.
McGuire was the scorer, after a one-two with Ablett – in his 200th Super League appearance – and Sinfield’s second goal cut Rovers’ advantage to two points.
It took a superb tackle by Ken Sio on a charging Hall to preserve the lead shortly before the break and that was a 12-point intervention as Rovers scored on their next attack.
Yet again it came from a kick on the last, this time a high quality effort from Campese, who dabbed the ball through and beat Hardaker to touch down, Mantellato’s conversion making it 24-16 at the half-time interval.
Rhinos were still well in it, but needed a strong start.
They got a penalty in their first set and worked the ball right, but Sinfield fired a pass straight at Kris Welham and he went 60 metres for another converted try. That was the last time Rovers troubled the scorers, though Leeds had an escape moments later when Kieran Dixon knocked-on over the line from Tyrone McCarthy’s pass in probably the game’s key incident.
There was another stroke of luck for the hosts on 48 when Campese’s pass to Mantellato was ruled forward and McGuire jinked over from Sinfield’s pass in the set from the scrum, though there was a clear obstruction before he crossed.
There was no argument about Leeds’ next try, six minutes later, as Singleton, McGuire and Sinfield worked the ball to Watkins and he put on some dazzling footwork to bamboozle the defence and cruise through.
Sinfield’s goal made it a two-point ball game.
Kelly and Sio both counter-attacked almost to the Leeds line after picking up passes from Sinfield deep in Rovers territory, then Ward made a fine break and was tackled into touch.
After consulting touch judge James Child, referee Thaler awarded a penalty and Leeds scored from it when Hardaker stepped through from Cuthberton’s pass after desperate defence had kept McGuire out.
Sinfield’s fifth conversion edged Leeds in front and they sealed it with two minutes left.
Hall did brilliantly to get back into play from Campese’s kick, Leeds went up field and Singleton supported McGuire’s break to cross unopposed. Captain Sinfield’s sixth conversion completing the scoring.
The penalty count finished 7-5 in Rovers’ favour (3-2 in the first half).
For the second successive season Leeds’ visit attracted a ground record crowd to Craven Park, yesterday’s 11,811 eclipsing the 11,526 who watched the same fixture last year.
Hull KR: Dixon; Mantellato, Welham, Goulding, Sio; Campese, Kelly; Walker, Carlile, Allgood, McCarthy, Horne, Burke.
Replacements: Donaldson, Cockayne, Green, Blair.
Leeds: Hardaker; T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Jones-Buchanan, Aiton, Peacock, Ablett, S Ward, Cuthbertson.
Replacements: Burrow, Achurch, Leuluai, Singleton.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).