IN AN uncertain world, one thing is pretty much guaranteed – Leeds Rhinos will find a way to beat Salford Red Devils.
Last night’s 44-2 victory was Leeds’ 39th in 41 Super League meetings between the sides and their 10th in succession at home.
Salford – who have been in poor form since Leeds thrashed them on their own turf in July – were ideal opposition for a Leeds team who are trying to build form for their semi-final in two weeks’ time.
Leeds delivered a commanding all-round performance, scoring eight tries and keeping their own line intact. Rhinos went behind to an early penalty, but responded with back-to-back tries – one of which brought the house down, or at least that part of it which wasn’t down already.
They spent much of the rest of the half defending, but made a good job of it and added a third try just before the break to go in 16-2 ahead.
Brian McDermott’s use of substitutes – or lack there of – is often criticised, but he introduced Matt Parcell after 51 minutes and that led to a blitz of tries in nine minutes, with the hooker crossing for two of them, to end any hopes the visitors might have had of pulling the game from the fire.
Three weeks from the end of the domestic season Rhinos are in good shape fitness-wise with only Achilles victim Keith Galloway unavailable from their top 20 squad.
Coach Brian McDermott was able to leave people out and the return of three players from injury – stand-off Joel Moon and substitutes Brett Ferres and Brett Delaney – added to his options.
Ashton Golding was recalled at full-back – having been an unused substitute in the defeat at Castleford a week earlier – and had a fine game.
Rob Burrow, who was suspended for the Cas game, started at hooker with Parcell dropping to the bench. Jordan Lilley, Jimmy Keinhorst and Carl Ablett – who was 18th man – all dropped out.
Salford could mathematically still qualify for the play-offs, that was highly unlikely and Leeds were already secure in second place so it was effectively a dead-rubber.
With the partially-demolished South Stand casting a shadow over proceedings, there was initially a muted atmosphere, despite a 13,094 crowd – but Leeds warmed them up as the game went on.
Salford received a penalty in their first set with the ball, Stevie Ward going too high on Tyrone McCarthy and Gareth O’Brien took the two.
That’s an unusual approach in Super League at the moment, but it was the only time they got on the scoreboard.
On 10 minutes Burrow booted a 40-20, Weller Hauraki was penalised for holding down Mitch Garbutt in front of Salford’s posts and Leeds took a tap, but the attack came to nothing.
A couple of minutes later a high tackle on Burrow led to another penalty, further out in Salford’s half.
Rhinos kicked for touch and scored in the resulting set, Liam Sutcliffe – who signed a new four-year contract during the week – finishing strongly from a long pass by Moon.
The clock then went back a decade or so, to the glory days of the Golden Generation. It was the last home league game for two of Leeds’ greatest servants, Burrow and Danny McGuire and in the set from the restart they revived the combination which was at the heart of so much success for more than a decade.
Burrow, at acting-half deep inside Leeds’ half, spotted a gap, skipped round Hauraki and into open space and McGuire was in support on his right shoulder to score unopposed. Kallum Watkins, who seems to be first-choice kicker now, converted both. Salford received four successive penalties after that, allowing them to apply sustained pressure, but a combination of their lack of ideas and poor handling, plus some strong Leeds defence, kept them out. Jake Bibby did get over on the right-flank, but the final pass – from Niall Evalds – was ruled forward. Salford were caught offside at the scrum near Leeds’ line, on 34 minutes and the kick set up Rhinos’ first attack since McGuire’s try.
Burrow and McGuire worked the ball to Ward and he picked out Tom Briscoe with a terrific pass. The winger still had a lot to do, but he produced an excellent finish, hitting the accelerator and scooting past Junior Sa’u for an unconverted touchdown to open a 14-point gap at the break.
Briscoe and Golding were tested under high kicks early on and handled them well. Briscoe beat a series of attempted tackles with a powerful run soon after his try and Leeds would have been out of sight by half-time had Sutcliffe managed to take Moon’s pass close to the line in the same set.
Rhinos made a series of errors inside their own half after the break and Salford went close through O’Brien, but Golding made an excellent try-saving tackle.
Parcell scooted between Salford’s posts within 60 seconds of his introduction, off a one-two with Adam Cuthbertson. That was the hooker’s 18th try of the season, extending his record as Leeds’ most prolific forward in a summer era campaign.
Burrow moved into the halves, with Moon switching to centre and Sutcliffe into the pack in place of Ward, who was given a breather.
Four minutes later Garbutt, who has been in strong form despite some injury woes this term, was held up over the line, but then McGuire grubbered between the posts and Cuthbertson beat Parcell to the touchdown. That was the front-rower’s 13th try of the season and he then made a remarkable defence-splitting charge in the set from the retart, which led to Parcell going over for his second try. Cuthbertson has recaptured his form from 2015, when he was a Man of Steel nominee and that has been integral to Rhinos’ return to the right end of the table.
His evening came to a premature end on the hour mark, when he took a blow to the head, but Leeds ran in two more tries without him.
Anthony Mullally powered over from close-range and then Golding made a break, McGuire kicked infield and Ferres touched down, Watkins taking his tally of conversions to six from eight attempts.
Young referee Liam Moore – 21 when he was appointed to the full-time list in June – was in charge of Leeds for the first time in a league match, though he was in the middle for the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup tie against Barrow Raiders four months ago.
In the closing stages Manu Vatuvei made a break and was halted by Golding and then Evalds was held up over the line, which typified Leeds’ impressive defensive effort.
The penalty count was 8-8 (5-4 to Salford in the first half).