LEEDS RHINOS had to endure some unnecessarily anxious moments before completing a perfect Easter with a 42-22 home win over Betfred Super League’s bottom club Widnes Vikings.
Rhinos scored 30 points in the first half for the second time in four days, following the 52-24 Good Friday win at Hull.
They were 12-0 ahead after just seven minutes and 18 points clear at the break and in total control. The game seemed to be petering out after half-time, but three Widnes tries in eight minutes cut the gap to eight points and suddenly Leeds were in a dogfight.
Kallum Watkins’ second try finally ended Widnes’ fightback seven minutes from time and in the end it was a good win for Leeds, in the circumstances, though not as comprehensive as it should have been.
Overall it was a good advert for not having double-headers.
As expected, Rhinos were without Ashton Golding (hamstring) and Liam Sutcliffe (concussion) from the team which won at Hull.
Ash Handley, normally a winger, made a surprise return from a knee injury suffered playing on dual-registration for Featherstone and came in at full-back.
After making his comeback from a hamstring problem as a substitute at Hull, Stevie Ward was moved into the starting line-up out of position at centre.
That allowed Joel Moon to continue in the halves. It was a selection which angered some fans, given that Jordan Lilley, who was in the initial 19, could have come in at scrum-half.
But it made sense as Leeds’ attack has been transformed since Moon moved into the pivots.
Moon had another good game, in his developing partnership with Danny McGuire and scored a brace of tries – his second of the Easter weekend – in the opening 40.
Ward is not a specialist centre, but he’s a strong defender and smart enough as a player to slot in there.
Early in the second half Ward went off, so Moon reverted to centre and Rob Burrow went into the halves. Rhinos’ attack was much less effective after that. They scored five tries in the first half and two – late on – after the break.
Following his successful return off the bench on Good Friday, Keith Galloway started in the front-row, swapping places with Mitch Garbutt.
Josh Walters, who, like Handley, was not in the initial squad, returned to the side on the bench.
Jack Walker, a full-back from the under-19s, warmed up as 18th man. Leeds were without Jimmy Keinhorst and Carl Ablett, – due to undergo knee surgery on Tuesday – opwing to injury and Brad Singleton and Brett Ferres were suspended.
Jack Ormondroyd made his return from injury for Featherstone on dual-registration and is presumably now in contention for Friday’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup tie against Doncaster.
It is embarrassing for Leeds – back-to-back winners in 2014 and 2015 – to be entering the competition a round earlier than most of their rivals.
But while eight of the top flight face a third tough game in a week – or a little more – Leeds will have an opportunity to rest some weary bodies when they face Kingstone Press League One part-timers.
The loss of in-form forward Anthony Mullally (suspected broken ribs) in the opening period was a blow, but Jordan Baldwinson got more game time that usual off the bench and coach Brian McDermott was able to bring Burrow on before the break and give Matt Parcell a breather.
Widnes’ side included six players who had not featured in their defeat by Warrington Wolves last Thursday and that may be why they seemed to find extra energy in the second half.
They were poor for the opening 57 minutes, but showed lots of spirit and some good skill during their rally and emerged from the game with some credit.
Leeds were in control throughout the first half. On six minutes Tom Gilmore one of Widnes’ better players along with Jack Buchanan, hoofed the ball out on the full and in the resulting set McGuire kicked towards the posts and Kallum Watkins made an excellent catch to scoot over for a try which he also converted.
In the next set McGuire kicked again and this time the ball bounced up, hit the crossbar and rebounded straight to Parcell, who was in the right place to give himself a walk-in.
The conversion was successful and Adam Cuthbertson was held up over the line by Corey Thompson and Jordan Johnstone before Widnes next held possession.
Leeds have been going for goal from penalties this season, but back-to-back opportunities in front of the posts on 16 minutes.
They were looking to apply a killer blow and it worked as Moon stepped over brilliantly from Cuthbertson’s pass and Watkins’ third goal made it 18-0. Buchanan knocked on trying to force his way over before Widnes got on the scoresheet through Gilmore, who dummied over on 24 minutes for a try which he also converted.
Two minutes later Leeds had the feed at a scrum just inside Widnes’ half. Ward’s offload found Moon and he sent Ryan Hall speeding down the left-wing before taking a return pass to cross for his second.
Watkins converted off a post and landed his fifth goal soon afterwards after some quick thinking by Tom Briscoe, who went down the blindside from acting-half after Burrow had been pulled down just short. A couple of early breaks came to nothing and Leeds seemed happy to amble through the second half.
They almost paid the price. Widnes opened the second half scoring 17 minutes in when Gilmore skipped past Jamie Jones-Buchanan from Jordan Johnstone’s pass after a penalty in front of the posts.
He also converted and three minutes later was heavily involved as Widnes cut the gap further.
Gilmore’s kick was off-loaded by Owen Farnworth to Chris Houston and the half-back added a third goal to make it 30-18.
With 15 minutes left Thompson went in for an unconverted try and Widnes suddenly realised they were in with a genuine chance.
Aided by a string of penalties – two of which came on the last tackle and led to tries – they dominated field position and possession and Leeds looked very vulnerable.
Going into the final 10 minutes a penalty relieved the pressure and Leeds made their first real sight of the Widnes line count as Watkins went over from McGuire’s pass.
Another penalty two minutes from time led to the last try, on the final play of the game, Parcell darting over off a one-two with Cuthbertson
Watkins completed the scoring with his seventh conversion.
Rookie referee Scott Mikalauskas was in charge of a Leeds game for the first time.
The 18 penalties were shared (5-4 to Rhinos in the first half).