UNDER-STRENGTH LEEDS Rhinos dug deep to secure a tense 24-22 win over St Helens which lifted them to second in the Betfred Super League table.
Their rivals have a game in hand, but it was a step closer to a top-four finish and extra home game in the Super-8s.
And under the circumstances it was a fine victory for Leeds, who weren’t at their best but showed outstanding determination.
Rhinos’ ball control was much better than the error-ridden effort in the defeat by Castleford Tigers six days earlier, but they lacked a cutting edge and attacking ideas.
That was summed up few seconds before the break when they could have set up for a drop goal, but instead settled for a kick into touch.
It was no surprise with Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow both missing. McGuire and forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan were suspended and back-rower Brett Ferres, who will undergo knee surgery next week, also dropped out.
Full-back Ashton Golding (hamstring) remained on the sidelines, along with Jimmy Keinhorst (hand), Brett Delaney (knee) and Burrow, who could be out of action for up to six weeks following a shoulder operation.
Jordan Lilley, who has been recalled from Bradford Bulls, started at scrum-half for only his third Leeds appearance this year and had a good game.
He provided the final pass for one try and created another with a kick, as well as landing four goals.
Jack Walker, an unused substitute six days ago, made his fourth senior appearance and his third start at full-back.
The 17-year-old looked the part. He made some excellent catches under pressure, produced a try-saving tackle on Ryan Morgan in the first half and then stopped James Roby – who looked a certain scorer – with an ankle-tap soon afterwards. His inclusion allowed Liam Sutcliffe to move into the centres and Ryan Hall back to the left wing.
Ash Handley, who started as Hall’s winger against Cas, was not included when the initial 19 was named, but took a place the bench.
It’s unusual to have a three-quarter among the substitutes, but Handley was into the action after just 26 minutes.
Joel Moon slipped Sutcliffe a pass which sent him racing along the left wing, but he pulled up injured – it looked like a hamstring problem – and was forced to pass.
The ball went behind Matt Parcell – who was in support – to let Saints off the hook. Handley came into the left-wing position, with Hall at centre.
Leeds’ other changes to last week’s team saw Jack Ormondroyd recalled from his dual-registration spell with Featherstone Rovers to take a place among the substitutes and Carl Ablett was back from illness in the second-row. Kallum Watkins was captain.
It was 6-4 at the interval, Leeds having done most of the pressing, but Saints taking a short-lived lead and looking dangerous on the break.
Rhinos went two scores clear soon after half-time, but a brace of tries in quick succession edged the visitors back in front.
Leeds took advantage of a yellow card to go ahead with 16 minutes left and opened an eight-point gap four minutes from time, which was enough despite Saints levelling the try tally late on.
Thanks to a spell of three penalties and two drop-outs, Rhinos forced more pressure in the first eight minutes than the whole of last week’s game.
But they couldn’t find a way through though Walker and Steve Ward both went agonisingly close.
Saints broke the deadlock on 15 minutes.
Dominique Peyroux stepped past Moon and held off Ablett before handing on to Adam Swift who finished off.
Saints had already lost Matty Smith, who took a blow to the face from teammate Jon Wilkin as they tried to tackle Moon. Tommy Makinson missed the conversion.
But a penalty in the next set gave Leeds good field position and this time they made it count, Moon stepping past Kyle Amor and twisting over through Peyroux’s attempted tackle.
It should have been a straight-forward conversion for Lilley, but his kick bounced away off a post.
He did land a kick three minutes before the break to nose Leeds in front, after Theo Fages was penalised for a flop following a powerful run by Anthony Mullally.
At the start of the second half Saints threatened through Fages and then Wilkin, but his kick was collected by Ablett.
He shipped on to Moon who sent Walker on a run. Leeds won a penalty and in the resulting set Moon teed up Lilley and his short pass sent Ward over, Lilley adding the extras. Saints got back into it soon afterwards after a huge scramble from Roby’s kick, which Walker and Handley couldn’t take under pressure from Peyroux.
Wilkin picked up, Hall knocked the ball out, Peyroux regathered and his pass sent Makinson over. Referee James Child signalled a touchdown and, eventually, video assistant Robert Hicks agreed and the try scorers added the extras.
Moments later Ablett was penalised for interference and in the resulting set Roby went over from an outstanding offload by Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Makinson’s conversion made it 16-12.
Parcell was held up over the line before Saints were reduced to 12 men, with 17 minutes left, when Wilkin was sin-binned for dangerous contact on Mitch Garbutt.
Leeds forced a drop out in the next set and on the final tackle from that Lilley kicked over the line and Tom Briscoe did well to palm the ball to Watkins, who touched down.
That levelled the scores and Lilley coolly landed the goal to give Leeds the lead again. They made the game safe with six minutes left.
Parcell was pulled down just short, then Moon ran across field and passed to Hall, who finished powerfully from 10 metres out.
That made the gap six points and Lilley, crucially, landed a terrific conversion. That proved vital as Saints grabbed a late touchdown, Alex Walmsley barging over from acting-half and Makinson landing his third goal.
The penalty count was six-two in Leeds’ favour at the break and finished 10-4.