LAST YEAR’S treble-winners Leeds Rhinos all-but secured their Super League place for 2017 with a 30-8 win over Salford Red Devils at Headingley last night.
It was Rhinos’ fourth victory from as many games in the First Utility Qualifiers and with part-timers Batley Bulldogs next up they should be safe before the tricky final two games at Huddersfield Giants and home to Leigh Centurions.
Rhinos were made to work hard for the two points, trailing briefly in a dour first half before taking command after the break.
It was a scrappy performance and an untidy game, but there were encouraging aspects for Leeds.
The game-breaking try was scored by hooker James Segeyaro, who was again a massive influence and played well throughout.
Try scorer Jamie Jones-Buchanan also had a big game, but the most pleasing aspect was the return of Stevie Ward, who came off the bench nine minutes into the second half.
It was his first game – at any level – since suffering serious knee damage in the win at Huddersfield which clinched the league leaders’ shield 49 weeks ago.
He took some big hits – including a couple around the head – but seemed to get through unscathed and made some strong carries which, looking ahead to next year, is a huge positive.
Leeds could also be satisfied with their defensive effort, restricting the visitors to just one try, which came off a kick early on.
There were more points in the opening 10 minutes than during the whole of Leeds’ 8-0 win over Salford at Headingley in June
After that defences took charge, but Leeds took advantage of a Salford yellow card to claw their way into a two-point interval lead.
They extended that to 12-8 early in the second half before two tries in four minutes left Salford with too much to do.
The visitors battled hard and looked the more dangerous team for spells, but their discipline was poor and they made too many errors.
Their third defeat means they are heading – at best – for the million pound match and relegation is a real possibility.
Rhinos opened the scoring after six minutes, following a clean break by Joel Moon, which led to a penalty for interference.
Keith Galloway was held on the line and Jones-Buchanan went over from acting-half Segeyaro’s pass.
Moon started at stand-off for the second successive game, alongside Rob Burrow. He was back in the side after missing the win at London Broncos two weeks ago due to a calf injury, replacing foot injury victim Danny McGuire.
Moon’s partnership with Burrow was Leeds’ eighth different starting half-back pairing this year. Brad Singleton also returned, in the front-row and Ward was the other player drafted in.
Mitch Achurch and Anthony Mullally, who were substitutes against London, dropped out of the 17. McGuire and knee injury victim Brett Delaney were the only players on Rhinos’ casualty list.
Liam Sutcliffe added the extras to Jones-Buchanan’s try, but the lead lasted less than three minutes.
Michael Dobson’s towering kick was batted back by Josh Griffin to the scrum-half, who sent the supporting George Griffin over, giving Gareth O’Brien a simple conversion.
Salford almost went ahead midway through the half, after Sutcliffe fumbled Dobson’s low kick. Craig Kopczak’s rumbling run almost took him over, but Brett Ferres made a vital low tackle.
At the other end, Salford’s strong goalline defence kept Mitch Garbutt out from a pass by Segeyaro, who was then held up as he darted from acting-half.
Leeds opted to tap a couple of kickable penalties, but Salford took the two after Rhinos’ markers were caught not square 32 metres out eight minutes before the break.
Moments after that, Salford’s O’Brien was sin-binned for a professional foul, getting in Burrow’s way as he tried to take a quick tap from a penalty inside Leeds’ half.
Rhinos scored in the resulting set. Initially it was a similar move to their first try, Jones-Buchanan trying to force his way over from close-range.
This time the defence held him out, but he managed to offload back to Segeyaro. He moved the ball right, Moon supplied Ferres and he sent Kallum Watkins over.
Sutcliffe failed with the conversion attempt and did not come out for the second half, his place being taken by Jordan Lilley. He slotted in alongside Burrow in the halves with Moon moving into the centres – his specialist position – and Watkins switching to full-back.
Adam Cuthbertson got over the Salford line four minutes into the second half, but could not get the ball down on the last tackle.
Salford’s former Leeds forward Weller Hauraki had a touchdown ruled out for a double movement , which was a crucial moment in the game.
Soon afterwards, on 53 minutes, Ward made a strong carry and was tackled high.
This time Leeds opted to take the two and Lilley, not from the easiest of angles, made it 12-8. Rhinos’ third try came on 56, totally out of the blue.
Josh Griffin lost the ball inside his own half and Segeyaro reacted quickly to hack on. With nobody near him he had the presence of mind to kick ahead again, then pick up and cross unopposed.
Lilley improved the try to open a 10-point gap.
If that try was one of the more bizarre scores of the season the next, on the hour was a cracker. Watkins made a break and Ward followed up with a strong carry.
He didn’t quite have the power to go all the way, but Burrow fired over a superb kick to the opposite flank and Tom Briscoe made an excellent catch before offloading to Carl Ablett, who fell over the line.
Lilley landed a touchline conversion and suddenly Leeds led 24-8.
They comfortably saw the game out after that, defending their line strongly when Salford managed to create a couple of spells of pressure. Watkins’ try-saving tackle on O’Brien was a highlight.
Cuthbertson had a good game off the bench and he scored the final try two minutes from time, from a pass by Segeyaro.
Lilley completed the scoring with his fourth goal.
The penalty count finished 13-7 in Leeds’ favour (7-5 in the first half).
Before the game, Rhinos president Harry Jepson, who was 96 when he died on Monday, was given an emotional send-off.
A tribute on the big screen was followed by an immaculately-observed minute’s silence, which also remembered former Leeds players Ken Thornett, John Hay and Frank ‘Shanks’ Watson who all died since the previous home game.
Meanwhile, Rhinos under-19s won 42-26 at Warrington Wolves last night.
Tommy Brierley and Sam Hallas both crossed twice, other try scorers were Nathan Waring, Cameron Smith and Jack Norfolk and Joe Sanderson kicked seven goals.