TEENAGE FULL-BACK Jack Walker enjoyed a debut to remember as Leeds Rhinos cruised past gutsy Doncaster 64-28 in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup last night.
The 17-year-old, who is not a member of Rhinos’ senior squad, scored a genuine hat-trick – three successive tries in the first half.
Leeds were always going to be too strong for the Kingstone Press League One part-timers, even with a host of first-choice players watching from the stands, but the tie gave an opportunity to Walker and 18-year-old Mikolaj Oledzki, who made his debut off the bench.
Both have a story attached. Walker has made a remarkable comeback after suffering a fractured skull playing for Oulton Raiders under-14s.
He isn’t the biggest of players, but he has good footwork, pace and an eye for the line. He opened his account on 21 minutes from Ash Handley’s pass, showed good speed to finish from Danny McGuire’s offload nine minutes later and added a similar touchdown – Kallum Watkins the provider this time – on 37.
Walker is one of only eight players – including Alan Smith who scored four – to register a hat-trick on debut for Leeds and the first since Ashley Gibson in 2005.
Oledzki had to wait until the 50th minute to get on, becoming the first Polish-born player to appear for Rhinos and also marking his first appearance with a try.
Cynics might point out that Doncaster – who conceded 80 points to Toronto earlier this month – have had lots of practice at kick-offs recently.
They are certainly good at it. They got the ball back five times and crossed from three of those. Doncaster actually embarrassed Leeds after the interval – adding five second half tries and out-scoring Leeds 24-20.
Facing a drubbing at the break, Doncaster will have been delighted to score 28 points – only Castleford have managed more against Leeds this year – at Headingley and deserve massive credit for their second half effort.
But, because of the one-sided first half, the tie was never a contest. Rhinos opened the scoring after three minutes and were 26-4 ahead at the start of the second-quarter and 44-4 up by the break.
They ran in 12 tries in total, but got very sloppy in the second period and that allowed Doncaster, who never stopped trying, to play some good rugby as they visibly grew in confidence.
As embarrassing as it was to enter the competition a round earlier than most of their Super League rivals, the draw and fixture list fell right for Rhinos.
After two games in four days over Easter, the visit of third tier opposition allowed coach Brian McDermott to give a breather to players carrying knocks.
Anthony Mullally was ruled out due to the rib injury he suffered in Monday’s win over Widnes and Tom Briscoe (dead leg) and Brett Delaney (hamstring) were both rested, along with Matt Parcell, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Stevie Ward, who is still feeling the effects of his hamstring problem.
Ashton Golding, Carl Ablett, Liam Sutcliffe and Jimmy Keinhorst remained on the casualty list and it was the fourth game of Brett Ferres’ six-match suspension.
Brad Singleton returned, in the second-row, after his six-game ban and Jordan Lilley made only his second appearance of the season, at hooker.
Sam Hallas, who was on loan at Bradford Bulls before suffering an ankle injury, was called up for the first time this year among the substitutes.
Jack Ormondroyd, who made his return from a knee injury for Featherstone Rovers on Monday, was back on the bench.
Rob Burrow stepped up to start at half-back with Joel Moon reverting to the centres and Ash Handley switched from full-back to wing.
Walker was straight into the action, providing the final pass for the opening try. It was a spectacular finish by Handley, who dived past full-back Tom Carr.
In the next set Burrow went in from Adam Cuthbertson’s offload and Watkins landed the first of his six conversions from nine attempts to make it 10-0 after five minutes.
Burrow shrugged off Brad England who was one of two ex-Leeds players in Doncaster’s 17, alongside Ryan Wright.
Doncaster’s side also included Leeds-born Aaron Jones-Bishop, brother of Wakefield Trinity’s ex-Leeds back Ben.
Mitch Garbutt stormed over for the third try, off good work by Lilley, on 10 minutes and then McGuire twisted over from Cuthbertson’s offload and the conversion made it 22-0 after 14.
Doncaster, though, scored next with a well-worked effort which came off some invention at the kick-off, Charlie Martin fielding the short restart and handing on to Mark Castle. That gave them a good attacking position and scrum-half Kieran Cross dummied over from first-receiver, though Carr could not add the extras.
Walker scored the next three tries to take Rhinos’ first half tally to seven and Lilley opened their account after the break with a nice finish after Walker, Moon and Ryan Hall had all handled. The visitors got the ball back again following Lilley’s try and Wright went over for a touchdown which Carr improved.
Normal service was resumed when Burrow scored his second soon afterwards, off Josh Walters’ pass after a break by Watkins.
McGuire had been taken off just before the break and Watkins was given a breather following that touchdown.
It was the first time he had been off the field during a Rhinos game since the start of last season.
Lilley took over the kicking, but was off-target with the conversion attempt. Yet again Doncaster regained possession from a short re-start and this time Louis Sheriff got over.
Leeds were looking bored by that stage and Doncaster scored again when Jordan Howden and Cross combined to send Martin diving over between the posts.
It was a well-deserved score for the former Castleford Tigers forward, who had a fine game in tough circumstances.
Carr’s goal made it 52-10, but Oledzki crashed over from Cuthbertson’s offload and Lilley added the extras.
Fifteen minutes from time Wright pounced on a Cuthbertson error and raced clear. He was tackled by Handley, but got the ball away to Kesik who bounced over for Doncaster’s fifth try.
The sixth came four minutes from time when Sheriff crossed again from a kick by Wright, but Moon finished off some fine handling two minutes from time and Lilley’s second goal completed the scoring. Kesik and Wright caught the eye for Doncaster, as did Jason Tali.
In a nice touch by the match officials’ department, the game was refereed by Chris Campbell, whose father David was in charge of the teams’ previous meeting in 1995.
The penalty count was seven-six in Doncaster’s favour (four-three to Leeds in the first half).