Castleford Tigers’ defeat by Warrington Wolves 24 hours earlier meant both teams had secured their place in the top six before kick-off, taking much of the tension out of the game.
But form is crucial at this time of year and Leeds regained some after the previous week’s drubbing at St Helens, running in six tries all of which Rhyse Martin converted.
The result, in front of a good crowd of 14,106, means Rhinos finish fifth for the second successive season and will travel to fourth-placed Wigan Warriors in an elimination tie on Thursday.
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Fifth is a bit of a lucky number for Rhinos. It’s not a spectacular achievement, but considering all the adversity thrown at them this year, it’s highly creditable.
Rhinos led 24-6 at half-time, thanks largely to three tries in the final 10 minutes and a missed opportunity by the Robins, who could have made it a six-point deficit.
A try soon after the resumption made the result safe and Leeds showed impressive determination on their line in the second period, when the game was already won.
Fittingly Rob Lui got on the scoresheet – and was named man of the match – in his final game at Headingley.
He opened the hosts’ account with a terrific solo effort which was his fifth try in just nine appearances this term and the stand-off is playing his best rugby since joining the club in 2019.
Also making his final home appearance as a Rhinos player was Konrad Hurrell, whose season seemed to be over just a couple of weeks ago.
He made his comeback from a foot injury, being brought off the bench two minutes into the second half and playing in the second-row.
Rhinos confirmed Alex Sutcliffe, who warmed up as 18th man, will leave the club at the end of this season. He is expected to join Castleford Tigers.
Though Leeds held a big lead at the break, most of the first half was evenly-fought.
There wasn’t a hint of a chance for the opening eight minutes, until a high tackle by Lui on Jimmy Keinhorst handed the Robins good attacking position and in the resulting set Will Maher got over the line, but was held up by Jack Broadbent and Richie Myler.
KR forced a drop out in the same set and went close again when Jordan Abdull linked with Shaun Kenny-Dowall, but his pass went behind Keinhorst into touch.
Leeds’ first opportunity also came from a penalty – after Broadbent was dragged into touch illegally – and they made it count when Lui darted past George King and Will Dagger from first receiver.
Ash Handley made a world-class take from a towering kick by Abdull after 17 minutes, but in the same set he hurled a wild pass behind Tom Briscoe, who had no chance of getting to it; Brad Takairangi picked up and scooped the ball to Mikey Lewis and his pace did the rest. Abdull tagged on the two to level matters. Sims was held up again soon afterwards, but Leeds went ahead for the second time 11 minutes before the interval.
Keinhorst lost possession – in a tackle by Harry Newman and Luke Briscoe – and that led to Matt Prior crashing over from acting-half Leeming’s pass. On 36 minutes, Leeming’s long pass sent Handley tearing down the left-wing. He was tackled after another exchange of passes with the No 9, but on the next play Myler fed Cameron Smith and his pass sent Tom Holroyd – who had a good game off the bench – through a huge gap.
Rovers could have cut the gap in the last four minutes of the half, but instead found themselves further behind.
Newman did well to pull down Keinhost after the former Leeds man intercepted from Leeming. Rovers moved the ball to the other flank and Crooks looked a certain scorer, but he lost his footing in Handley’s ankle tap, tried to bounce over the line and lost the ball.
That was a huge let off for Leeds and a potential 12-point turnaround as they went to the other end, Smith and Lui linked to find Martin and he made a half-break before slipping out an excellent offload which Myler finished. Leeds moved further ahead eight minutes into the second period, after a couple of penalties, when James Donaldson – back after illness last week – crashed over.
Handley atoned for his earlier error with a spectacular finish, from Myler’s long pass, with 17 minutes left.
Crooks dropped the ball over the line, in Handley’s tackle, but KR managed a consolation try through Dagger, which Abdull improved, with four minutes left.
The penalty count was seven-six in Rhinos’ favour. It had been seven-two until late on. Rhinos received four six-agains, to KR’s two. Rugby league doesn’t help itself sometimes and surely, when one of the teams are playing in all red, it makes sense to kit the match officials out in anything but pink. Last night’s win ended a run of six successive defeats for Rhinos in games refereed by Chris Kendall.