HEADINGLEY’S FAMOUS South Stand has witnessed some great matches and memorable moments in its 86 years, but its final game wasn’t among them.
Rhinos sent the stand, which will now be demolished, out on a positive note with a 16-14 win over St Helens, but it was a poor game.
Rhinos trailed 8-2 at the break after a dull first half in which there were only a couple of free-flowing moves, mainly due to both teams’ inability to hold on to the ball.
The difference was Rhinos didn’t finish theirs and Saints did. The half-time parade of past Leeds players was much more entertaining than the rugby and it was a shame a few of them hadn’t brought their boots.
To their credit Leeds stepped up in the second half. They squared the scores soon after the interval, hit the front with 16 minutes left and wrapped up their scoring with a penalty soon afterwards.
Neither team played particularly well, though Leeds were the better team in the second half and deserved the points, despite a late scare when Saints pulled a try back.
It was the third two-point ball game between the sides in as many meetings this year. With Hull losing Rhinos have a three-point gap over the third-placed side and are another step closer to a home semi-final.
The only change to Rhinos’ line-up from the dismal loss at Wakefield Trinity eight days earlier was Jack Walker’s return at full-back in place of Ashton Golding, who was dropped and warmed up as 18th man.
Walker was a shining light. He chimed well into the line and plays a remarkably mature style of game for an 18-year-old with eight senior appearances to his credit.
Jordan Lilley and Mitch Garbutt – who remained on the casualty list, alongside Brett Ferres and Keith Galloway – were the two players not selected from Leeds initial 19-man squad.
Jimmy Keinhorst was an unused substitute for the second successive week and Rob Burrow didn’t get on either.
Tom Briscoe had a good game. Saints tested him early on and he made a tremendous catch from a high kick by Matty Smith, though he needed treatment after being caught high by Zeb Taia.
Smith returned to Saints’ starting lineup for the first time since suffering an horrific facial injury – which almost cost him an eye – on their previous visit to Headingley two months ago.
Saints scored first after 10 minutes. Briscoe caught a towering bomb from Smith on the bounce and was trapped in goal.
From the drop out Stevie Ward was penalised for interference on former Leeds prop Kyle Amor and Mark Percival took the two from in front of the posts.
Ward conceded a penalty with a high shot following the restart, but Kallum Watkins made a terrific tackle on Jonny Lomax and Ward did well to keep Percival out.
Smith’s kick to the corner forced Ryan Hall to concede a drop out and then McGuire was penalised, but a fumble by Smith let Rhinos off the hook.
Rhinos levelled after 19 minutes when Saints were caught not square at the marker in front of their own posts and Watkins booted the penalty.
Just five minutes later Percival had a chance to edge the visitors back in front with another penalty. That was awarded for interference by Matt Parcell on Jon Wilkin and looked harsh, but justice was done when the kick was hooked wide.
Parcell was Leeds’ best player and clearly enjoyed his contest with opposite number James Roby.
After a lively opening the game went completely off the boil with both teams making a series of handling errors and struggling to get to the end of sets.
With a flurry of penalties making it even more stop-start neither side threatened the other’s goalline until eight minutes before the break.
Leeds should have scored when Parcell made a break and found Carl Ablett who sent Liam Sutcliffe charging down the left-centre channel with Hall on his inside, but he opted not to pass and ran straight into the last defender.
A brilliant run by Saints’ young winger Regan Grace on a free play took play to the other end, but Percival knocked-on.
It looked like the half would end tryless, but Saints finally managed to string a move together five minutes before the break.
Roby made the initial ground from inside his own half. Taia was in support and drew the full-back before passing to Lomax who crossed unopposed. Percival added the extras to make it 8-2 at the break, Smith missing with a drop goal attempt just before the hooter.
It was the second successive half in which Leeds had failed to cross their opponents’ line and Leeds would have been further adrift five minutes into the second half if Dominique Peyroux had been able to find a team-mate with an offload in front of Leeds’ posts, though the hosts’ scrambling defence deserved some credit.
A couple of minutes later Rhinos were level. Saints conceded a penalty in possession, for obstruction and from it Brad Singleton, Joel Moon and Walker moved the ball left to Sutcliffe and his pass put Hall over for his 221st Leeds try in his 300th appearance.
Watkins’ conversion levelled the scores, but he missed with a penalty shot from just to the right of the posts with 22 minutes left.
Rhinos finally managed to apply some pressure thanks to a series of repeat sets. Saints scrambled superbly to keep them out, but the dam broke when Adam Cuthbertson crashed over for his 11th try of the campaign.
Watkins’ goal made it 14-8 and he opened a two-score gap with 10 minutes left with a penalty after Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook had tackled Moon without the ball.
That proved crucial as Danny Richardson, who had just come on, pulled a try back with five minutes left and Percival’s conversion narrowed the gap to two points.
Rhinos went from March to July – the home and away league games against Wigan Warriors – without being refereed by Ben Thaler.
Last night was their fourth successive league match with him in the middle. The penalty count finished 10-8 to Leeds – 6-5 in Saints’ favour in the first half.
Rhinos coach Brian McDermott admitted Leeds should have executed better but said: “I am extremely proud of the players, where they got that performance from in the second half I don’t know. I thought the game had the intensity of a final.”
The RFL have confirmed the first Super League semi-final between Castleford Tigers and the team finishing fourth, will be staged at the Jungle on Thursday, September 28 (8pm).
The runners-up in the table will be at home to the third-placed team 24 hours later.