A 32-4 WIN over Salford Red Devils at Headingley Carnegie yesterday took Leeds Rhinos into top spot on the Super League table, but it was more of a contest than the scoreline suggests.
Rhinos scored early and were well on top in the opening exchanges, but missed a couple of chances and their lack of spark fuelled Salford’s growing belief.
The visitors pulled a try back in the second quarter and most of that period was played close to Leeds’ line – or even over it as visiting players were held up three times by some desperate last-gasp defence.
Rhinos were fortunate to be ahead at the break, but a long-range try right at the start of the second half moved them two scores clear and they were the better team after that.
It was tough up to half-time and Leeds had to work hard in spells after the break. Their defence in the middle of the field looked tired at times and they won’t be happy with the number of breaks Salford made. They just couldn’t get a grip of Rangi Chase, who came with his full bag of tricks.
That said, Leeds’ defence near their own line was outstanding as they restricted the opposition to just one try for the fourth successive game.
They also highlighted just how much strike power there is in this team with four long-range tries out of nothing in the second period.
Jones-Bishop scored one of them and helped create another two, but was even more impressive with his last-ditch tackling, which denied Salford on a number of occasions when the game was in the balance.
There were also big games from Kevin Sinfield, who kept things together when Salford were on top, both wingers and Rob Burrow, who even got a rest late on after his recent massive efforts.
With Stevie Ward – who suffered ankle damage in the win over Bradford – joining Paul Aiton and Jamie Jones-Buchanan on the casualty list, Rhinos boss Brian McDermott didn’t have an opportunity to make wholesale changes, but there were a few.
Jones-Bishop returned from his head injury at full-back, with Zak Hardaker switching into the centres to give Kallum Watkins a rest.
Jamie Peacock was back at prop, so Brad Singleton switched to the bench alongside the recalled Ryan Bailey and Ian Kirke dropped out.
Salford boss Iestyn Harris’ team selection suggested he had an eye on this weekend’s Challenge Cup clash with Widnes Vikings.
The visitors were were missing Greg Johnson and Shannon McPherson, who were injured in their Good Friday defeat by Huddersfield. Martin Gleeson, Tim Smith, Harrison Hansen and Tony Puletua were rested along with Adrian Morley, who was therefore denied what might have been a farewell appearance at the ground where he began his career.
Sinfield opened the scoring for Leeds with a try and conversion after six minutes.
Mitch Achurch, who is in good form at the moment, burst into to a gap from Sinfield’s pass before turning the ball back inside for his captain to cross between the posts.
The re-start went dead via and upright to force a goal line drop out and it took a fine tackle by Hardaker on Junior Sa’u to keep Salford out.
Carl Ablett knocked on a few metres out and Leeds missed another good chance midway through the opening period when Burrow and Ablett combined to give Ryan Hall a run.
He got past the first defender and had Burrow in support, but was tackled into touch just short by Jake Mullaney.
With Leeds clearly struggling to move up through the gears, Salford began to find some belief and they were close to getting on the scoreboard on 24 when Sa’u collected Gareth Hock’s pass a few metres out, but he was twisted into touch by Hardaker and Tom Briscoe.
Former Leeds man Danny Williams made a break up the middle and at the end of the set Logan Tomkins got the ball at acting half about 10 metres out, put his head down and simply charged over, though Mullaney could not add the extras.
Moments later Chase’s kick rebounded off Sinfield straight to Stuart Howarth, who got over the line, but was held up – somehow – by Hall, Jones-Bishop and McGuire, who was hurt in the process and had to go straight off after on-field treatment, though he returned late on.
Jones-Bishop was involved again, with Bailey this time, holding Howarth up as the ex-Wakefield man caused Rhinos real problems and then he prevented Chase getting the ball down over the line as Leeds desperately held on.
Having been under the cosh for so long at the end of the opening period, Leeds turned defence into attack in sensational style at the start of the second.
Briscoe collected Chase’s high, hanging kick close to the sideline a few metres out. His pass found Jones-Bishop and the full-back weaved through the advancing line and sliced into space.
Mullaney did incredibly well to run the Leeds man down, but Jones-Bishop offloaded over his shoulder and Hardaker was in support, with enough steadiness to pick up and go over unopposed.
Sinfield’s conversion gave Leeds some breathing space at 12-4.
An Ablett knock-on close to the line killed a good chance for Leeds, but he redeemed himself with a try-saving tackle after Chase had dipped a shoulder and ghosted clear.
Referee Ben Thaler’s penalty count finished 11-4 to Rhinos (4-3 to Leeds in the first half) as the hosts received the last six in succession.
He upset the Leeds fans by awarding a penalty for obstruction as Chase’s kick to the corner was taken near his own line by Hall, who had clear territory ahead and Burrow on his shoulder.
That was right, as he’d already blown for the offence. However, they were cheering him moments later when Theo Fages got over the line – seconds after Jones-Bishop had made yet another try-saving tackle on Chase – but the referee again spotted an obstruction.
Chris Clarkson then had a touchdown ruled out for a knock-on by Briscoe, but Leeds struck a vital blow on 61 minutes with a blindside move.
Jones-Bishop went down the wing and found Joel Moon, whose pass was finished by Burrow. Sinfield’s goal made it 18-4.
The points were made safe in spectacular fashion on 66 when Hardaker collected Chase’s grubber near his own line, broke clear, isolated the full-back and timed his pass to Jones-Bishop to perfection, Sinfield converting.
Hall crossed from Moon’s pass with six left and Briscoe rounded things off in the final moments, collecting a bouncing kick and racing 70 metres for another spectacular Leeds touchdown.