LEEDS RHINOS’ poor season ended on a rare high as they produced a fine effort to beat Leigh Centurions 37-12 at Headingley last night.
The odds were stacked against Rhinos, who were backing up just four days after a bruising encounter at Huddersfield and were unable to call on 12 of their 25-man senior squad.
But Leeds’ makeshift side produced probably their best 80 minutes of the season, defending strongly against a very good attacking team and scoring some sparkling tries.
Promoted Leigh have a powerful, very experienced pack, but Leeds’ forwards got on top of them with Adam Cuthbertson, Brad Singleton and James Segeyaro, in particular, having big games.
The win meant Rhinos finished top of the First Utility Qualifers on points difference from Leigh. It was only the visitors’ third defeat this year, after a loss at Batley Bulldogs in their opening Kingstone Press Championship fixture, in February and away to Toulouse in the Challenge Cup two months later.
Appropriately, Leeds ended the year fielding a makeshift side, missing nine players due to injury.
Keith Galloway (Achilles), Rob Burrow (knee) , Carl Ablett (ankle) and Jordan Lilley (knee) were all ruled out after being hurt in the defeat Huddersfield Giants four days earlier.
Danny McGuire, Brett Delaney, Mitch Achurch, Mitch Garbutt and Anthony Mullally remained on the casualty list and Luke Briscoe, Josh Walters and Jordan Baldwinson are on loan at Featherstone Rovers and therefore unavailable.
Lilley had been due to play, but pulled out after the final training session, meaning Leeds were without all their three specialist halves.
Ashton Golding stepped up off the bench to start at full-back, with Liam Sutcliffe moving into the halves alongside Joel Moon, who was also among the substitutes at Huddersfield.
They were Leeds’ ninth different half-back pairing this year and they did a fine job, on the back of the pack’s strong work.
Ryan Hall returned on the wing, so Ash Handley dropped to the bench. With Cuthbertson also starting, Leeds’ other substitutes had a total of three senior appearances between them.
It was academy player of the year Josh Jordan-Roberts’ debut. He came on for a brief spell in the final quarter. Cameron Smith got his second senior game and it was Sam Hallas’ third.
There were 12 academy products in Leeds’ 17, plus another – Lee Smith – on duty for Leigh. Seventeen-year-old England academy international Mikolaj Oledzki warmed up as 18th man.
There were 22 penalties in the game. The count finished 13-9 to Leeds (6-4 in the first half).
Rhinos were reduced to 12 men after just four minutes when Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who was captain for the night, was sin-binned.
Gareth Hewer produced a yellow card after Greg Worthington was hurt in what the referee obviously felt was a dangerous tackle, though the centre played on after treatment.
Leigh’s discipline was poor – they niggled all night and committed a series of high tackles – and they too had a man yellow-carded.
Lee Smith finished the game on the naughty step after being sin-binned with eight minutes left, after a very belated team warning. Leeds held out during the 10 minutes Jones-Buchanan was off and cracked Leigh’s defence within moments of the captain returning as Brett Ferres crossed from a show-and-go a few metres out.
Kallum Watkins was a surprise choice as kicker, but he sent the conversion attempt wide. Watkins is the only Leeds player to have appeared in every game this year and has played the full 80 in all of them.
In such an injury-ravaged year that was a notable achievement, particularly for a player who had such a tough time with injuries earlier in his career.
Jones-Buchanan was held up over the line twice following his return to the action and Jimmy Keinhorst went close from a kick by Sutcliffe.
Jones-Buchanan got over the second time after winning a penalty for interference on the last tackle. Leeds scored in the resulting set when Keinhorst powered over from Moon’s pass after Sutcliffe had also handled. Again, Watkins could not add the extras and he was off the mark again four minutes later following Keinhorst’s second try. That was another good finish, from Stevie Ward’s pass after he had received the ball off Cuthbertson, following a Lee Smith knock-on deep in Leigh territory.
Leeds’ fourth try was a cracker. Leigh spun the ball wide and Matty Dawson looked a certain scorer, but was held up in an absolutely sensational tackle by Ferres.
Josh Drinkwater then kicked straight at Segeyaro who dashed clear and out-paced Lee Smith – no mean feat – on an exhilarating run to the line.
Segeyaro had time to point a finger at Lee Smith before touching down and then to complete a thrilling couple of minutes, Watkins added the extras – the first goal of his senior career – to his and everyone else of a blue and amber persuasion’s delight.
That made it 18-0, which was a fair reflection of Leeds’ dominance, but Cameron Smith conceded a drop out from the re-start, catching the ball before he put a foot over the line. Leigh made the most of the opportunity, Sam Hopkins forcing his way over – Hewer indicated try and video assistant Robert Hicks agreed – and Martyn Ridyard adding the extras.
In the final seconds Travis Burns was penalised for shoving a hand in Ferres’ face, but Watkins’ kick – after the hooter – bounded away off a post.
Rhinos scored their fifth try 10 minutes after the break. Segeyaro dived round at a play-the-ball to gain possession and Leeds opted not to go for goal following Lee Smith’s flop on Sutcliffe.
That paid off as Golding cut through for a fine finish from Ward’s pass.
He was tackled around the head by Harrison Hansen, but still managed to get the ball down and Watkins converted to make it 24-6.
Moments later Golding, who had an excellent game, turned provider, bursting clear and using Segeyaro in support.
This time the hooker could not go all the way, but the defence was out of position and Moon jinked over for a well-deserved try from acting-half, which Watkins improved.
A Dawson try, goaled from the touchline by Ridyard, cut the gap to 18 points, but Leeds made the game safe with 12 minutes left when Moon grubbered over the line, Watkins missed it, but Tom Briscoe followed up to touch down and Watkins added the goal to complete the try scoring.
Leeds’ final point of the season was scored by Moon, who landed a well-taken drop goal after the hooter.
Rhinos won the Bev Risman Trophy, provided by Sky TV and named after and presented by the dual-code international who played for both Leeds and Leigh in the 1960s.