LEEDS RHINOS had to be patient before making it two wins out of two in Super League last night.
Rhinos led Widnes Vikings only 14-6 deep into the second half, but suddenly broke the visitors’ resistance to score four tries in the final 13 minutes as they completed their first win at Headingley Carnegie in five matches.
It was a better effort by Widnes, who were without their main play-maker Kevin Brown, due to concussion and suspended winger Patrick Ah Van, than the 38-6 scoreline suggests.
It was all square at the break. Leeds had most of the territory, but – despite some offloading – it was largely up-the-middle rugby and Widnes’ impressive scrambling defence rose to the task, restricting the hosts to a series of half-chances.
Several times throughout the game Rhinos got into a good attacking position, but gave the ball away with a poor pass.
Leeds also defended well in the opening period and they coped well with some tricky Widnes kicks.
They wouldn’t be happy with the close-range try they conceded, but that was Vikings’ only serious opportunity of the game.
The amount of defence Widnes did in the first half took its toll after the break, allowing Rhinos to play more of an expansive game, though they had to wait until the final quarter before the points were safe.
Once Leeds cut loose their attacking play was outstanding, particularly down the right flank, where Tom Briscoe tore Widnes apart.
The surprise on Rhinos’ team sheet was the omission of Rob Burrow, with Liam Sutcliffe taking his place on the bench.
Sutcliffe came on, late in the first half, to replace Paul Aiton and went into the halves, with Kevin Sinfield having a stint at hooker.
There was a late change to the substitutes. Kylie Leuluai had been due to continue on the bench, but he was withdrawn after being taken ill during the warm-up and replaced by Andy Yates.
It was Yates’ Leeds – and Super League – debut, though he had to wait until the 72nd minute – after Rhinos had gone 20 points clear – to finally get into the action.
The only changes to the starting lineup were positional. Adam Cuthbertson was named at prop, swapping places with Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who was the nominal loose-forward.
The opening try, which came on 16 minutes, was a cracker. The ball was ripped out of Cuthbertson’s grasp and went to ground. Briscoe picked up, cut inside, accelerated past a couple of defenders and then slipped a pass to Zak Hardaker, who had a clear run to the line.
Sinfield converted, but the lead lasted less than three minutes. An obstruction ruling in midfield denied Danny McGuire what would probably have been Leeds’ second try in the set from the re-start.
Widnes coach Denis Betts threw Aaron Heremaia and Manase Manuokafoa on after the Leeds try and in the attack from the penalty the former’s short pass was taken by the latter and he barged over between the posts, Danny Tickle squaring things up with the conversion.
That was Widnes’ second sight of the Leeds line after Chris Clarkson, on a season-long loan from Rhinos, had been hauled down a few metres short just before Hardaker’s touchdown.
Clarkson had a strong game for the visitors, including a stunning try-saving tackle on Mitch Achurch – who he shares a house with – in the second half.
Conditions weren’t easy, due to a couple of hours’ heavy rain before kick-off and there were a series of errors by both teams, which kept Widnes pegged in their own half.
The closest Leeds came to making their territory pay was on 33 minutes when Sinfield fed Cuthbertson, but his offload bounced to ground off Joel Moon’s chest five metres out from the line.
Moon had crossed to the right flank on that occasion. A couple of minutes before the break he made a forceful run down the left channel, but was well tackled by Stefan Marsh.
The Widnes centre held on too long, conceding a penalty, but the chance was missed when Sutcliffe lost possession as he threatened to cut through. When Hardaker knocked on after a Leeds scrum deep in Widnes territory just after the break, Leeds may have thought it wouldn’t be their night.
But Widnes handed the ball back as they tried to clear their lines, then conceded another scrum when a defender knocked Sinfield’s pass down and from that it took a brilliant tackle by Clarkson to keep out Achurch, off Sutcliffe’s superb pass.
Leeds, though, switched the direction of play, McGuire and Carl Ablett worked the ball to Moon and his pass brought out a typically powerful finish from Ryan Hall at the corner, though Sinfield’s conversion attempt hit a post.
That was on 46 minutes and Leeds moved two scores ahead 10 later, after a penalty against Widnes for holding down.
Aiton, just back on, took the ball from acting-half, held it up and then slipped the pass out to Cuthbertson, who powered on to the offload and crashed through for his first Rhinos try.
Sinfield – now playing in the back-row – missed with his kick, but Leeds finally had some breathing space at 14-6.
They could have sealed it on 63 when Sinfield’s pass picked out Kallum Watkins.
The ball went loose and was hacked on and regathered by the centre, who had a clear run to the line, but referee Robert Hicks – who had a decent game – blew for a knock-on.
When Leeds did put the game out of reach, four minutes later, they did it in dazzling style.
Aiton began the move with a strong run deep in Rhinos territory.
He fed Watkins, who slipped the ball to Achurch, The big second-row, threw a dummy and powered clear before a perfectly-timed pass to Briscoe, who skinned the final two defenders to complete a thrilling long-range move, to which Sinfield added the extras.
That sparked a collapse by Widnes as Leeds moved into an extra gear.
Two minutes later Sinfield put up a high kick on the last, Marsh let it bounce, caught it, was hit in the tackle and knocked-on and McGuire pounced for a deserved score, Sinfield’s goal making it 26-6.
Then moments after that Sinfield’s grubber kick was picked up by Briscoe and he turned it inside to Watkins, who went over for the hosts’ sixth try, converted by Sinfield for his fourth goal.
And there was still time for Sinfield to score his second try in as many games, starting and finishing a move which also involved Watkins and Briscoe.
The skipper’s fifth goal completed the scoring.
The penalty count 5-3 in Leeds’ favour (3-3 in the first half).