THE need for complicated calculations, unlikely winning runs or, in all reality, a sheer miracle is over as there is now no discussion – Super League champions Leeds Rhinos are in the Qualifiers.
That said, they should have won this match and made it three successive victories to keep the dream of escaping this ignominy alive a little longer.
Instead, Joe Mellor’s 79th minute drop-goal secured Widnes the points that all but secures them in the top-eight.
But Leeds, for all their own issues, were furious the Australian ever got in sight of the posts.
They thought they should have had a penalty – or two – in the set before when Danny McGuire was lining up his own drop-goal.
First, a Widnes player laid on the wrong side of the play-the-ball scuppering Rob Burrow’s attempts to get a clean pass.
Then, at the very next play, an opponent stretched through to interfere again but once more there was no call from referee Ben Thaler.
Granted, Leeds had earlier chances that they botched all by themselves.
Liam Sutcliffe and Adam Cuthbertson forced passes and lost possession when more composure could have seen a one-point attempt.
Then, when Brian McDermott’s side did get to the last tackle, the ball somehow finished with forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Brad Singleton, arguably the least likely drop-goal exponents in their side.
It was a sign of the lack of game management that has blighted them for all season and why they are bottom of Super League.
They had led 22-10 after Mitch Garbutt’s 51st minute try but their opponents hit back with a swift double from Patrick Ah Van and Hanbury to leave it locked at 22-22 from the 58th until that dramatic ending.
Carl Ablett showed some nice touches in his first game since mid-April, Luke Briscoe did well on the wing, apart from one costly error, while Rob Burrow was in great form but it all still amounted to a 16th defeat of the year.
Leeds started strongly and were rewarded with a try from Kallum Watkins after just six minutes.
Liam Sutcliffe’s smart grubber forced Patrick Ah Van into conceding a drop-out and, after Mitch Garbutt carried strongly, Burrow gave the England centre just enough room to cross.
Sutcliffe added the first of his three goals but the home side were fortunate soon after when Joe Mellor, the darting scrum-half, left Mitch Garbutt grounded to get over the line but then inexplicably dropped the ball.
There was no such reprieve in the 16th minute, however, when Widnes did get their first try.
They were lucky to even be in striking distance; Jones-Buchanan had led a three-man tackle on Ah Van that forced the former Bradford Bulls winger back five metres over his 20m line.
But Thaler decided there was then interference at the play-the-ball when it seemed anything but and, when Jones-Buchanan let the official know, Leeds were marched back a further 10m.
From that set, right winger Corey Thompson arced over onto the left to take Kevin Brown’s pass and dummy through from 20m.
Leeds did not lose confidence, though, and saw Ryan Hall, making his first start since returning from injury, add their second try after 23 minutes.
It was a strange affair; McGuire’s chipped kick looked set to be defused by Widnes but their centre Stefan Marsh somehow failed to jump, actually ducking out of the way to gift the England winger his first try since February 27.
Leeds secured back-to-back tries when McGuire’s raking pass to the right found Watkins who used the space to send Briscoe clear, Ashton Golding supported and Joel Moon finished.
Sutcliffe converted for a 16-4 lead but, with Brown’s fine kicking game, they were then put under some sustained pressure.
Brett Ferres made a crucial tackle to deny Lloyd White, then Chris Houston was held up over the Leeds line, but, in the fourth successive set, McDermott’s side finally splintered when Mellor sniped over from close range for Hanbury to improve.
Cuthbertson should have been awarded a penalty try when a Widnes defender attacked his head just as the Australian was destined to crash over between the posts.
Remarkably, Thaler did not even award a penalty and, as McGuire tried sneaking over later in the set, the captain lost control of the ball to leave it 16-10 at the break. Leeds got the first try of the second period in the 51st minute, Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s short pass seeing Garbutt slip two defends from close range for Sutcliffe to convert.
That should have put them in the driving seat but those back-to-back tries got Denis Betts’ side right back into the game. Golding had done brilliantly to deny Thompson a certain score after Brown’s break but that effort was wasted as Watkins spilled cheaply coming out from his own 20.
That allowed Brown to produce one of his quality cut-out passes to send Ah Van in at the corner.
Hanbury converted from wide out and he scored himself in the next set when Briscoe failed to take Mellor’s hanging kick and the full-back weaved over from 20m, his kick levelling at 22-22.
He then added the winner and now Leeds must contemplate life with the likes of Leigh Centurions and London Broncos.
Leeds Rhinos: Sutcliffe; L Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; McGuire, Burrow; Galloway, Jones-Buchanan, Garbutt, Ferres, Achurch, Singleton . Substitutes: Cuthbertson, Golding, Ablett, Keinhorst.
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury; Thompson, Runciman, Marsh, Ah Van; Brown, Mellor; Cahill, White, Buchanan, Houston, Dean, Leuluai. Substitutes: Dudson, Heremaia, Manuokafoa, Whitley.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).