LEEDS RHINOS made hard work of their first win in four Super League matches last night.
Their 36-16 victory over Hull KR at Headingley took them three points clear at the top of the table, though Wigan Warriors play their game in hand at Catalans Dragons today.
Against a dogged Rovers side, Leeds led 18-16 at the break after a see-sawing first half, during which they trailed by two points and led by 10.
Rhinos were sharp in occasional flashes, but flat and casual for much of the period, building a decent advantage and then squandering it through a succession of errors.
Rovers are a good attacking team and they defended better than expected, particularly after producing a huge effort in their Challenge Cup win over Wigan Warriors a week earlier.
Leeds looked sharper after the break, though the game generally got quite scrappy and the hosts didn’t get into top gear.
Defensively they were better in the second period and keeping a team like Hull KR out for 40 minutes is a good effort.
Overall it was actually closer than the scoreline suggests and Leeds couldn’t feel comfortable until going three scores clear nine minutes from time.
They scored six tries to four, but Rovers failed to add any conversions, which meant the margin flattered Leeds, though they were worthy winners.
Stevie Ward was invited to a meeting with England coach Steve McNamara and last year’s Four Nations squad this week – along with team-mate Brad Singleton – and he showed why he’s in international contention by scoring the opening try, stepping, spinning and stretching over from McGuire’s pass after five minutes.
Kevin Sinfield – making his 550th career appearance – converted, but the lead was short lived.
Three minutes afterwards Kieran Dixon made a break. Though he was hauled down, later in the set Hull KR exposed Leeds’ left-side defence and the winger crossed from Ken Sio’s pass after Ben Cockayne had also handled.
Leeds looked like they would increase their advantage on 12 minutes, but Sio made a try-saving tackle on Ryan Hall.
Leeds switched play to the other flank and Danny McGuire’s pass was intercepted by Josh Mantellato. Ash Handley chased back to slow him down and Zak Hardaker completed the tackle, but play went right and Dixon crossed for his second from Aaron Ollett’s pass.
After Mantellato failed to convert the opener, Dixon took the kick and was also off-target and Leeds were quickly back in front.
On 17 minutes McGuire almost weaved over, then Paul Aiton teed-up Sinfield and his pass split the defence to put Mitch Achurch over.
Achurch started in place of Brett Delaney, who suffered a leg injury in last Saturday’s Challenge Cup win over Huddersfield. Liam Sutcliffe came back into the 17, on the bench. Jamie Jones-Buchanan missed out after failing a 1pm fitness test.
Rob Burrow, who this week signed a two-year contract which will see him complete his career at Leeds, didn’t get on until the 55th minute, with Sutcliffe making an appearance three later.
Sinfield’s conversion moved him level with Gus Risman, who played for Leeds as a guest player during the Second World War, in third place on the sport’s all-time list of try scorers.
They weren’t level for long, three minutes to be exact. Ryan Hall accepted Joel Moon’s pass and smashed off – that’s the only word for it – Sio and Dixon before touching down at the corner.
Sio needed treatment and had to go off, but – despite the delay – Sinfield booted the goal to open an 18-8 advantage and move up a place in the record books.
Rhinos started to make errors after that, allowing the visitors back into the game. They took advantage eight minutes before the break, after Rovers debutant James Greenwood – on loan from Wigan – won a penalty in front of the posts.
Josh Boudebza, Maurice Blair and Terry Campese linked across the line to Cockayne, who dipped a shoulder and shot through a gap for a fine try, which Mantellato could not improve.
Then with two minutes on the clock, Kallum Watkins failed to take Campese’s bomb to concede a scrum, Rhinos were penalised for interference and on the final play of the half Kris Welham put Mantellato over, though it was too far out for the Italian international to add the extras.
McGuire had what would have been his 250th Leeds try ruled out early in the second half, when Aiton – who had a good game – seemed to drop the ball back, but referee Robert Hicks ruled a knock-on. But on 48 minutes Carl Ablett intercepted from Greenwood inside Rovers’ half, Josh Walters – a strong performer off the bench – went close and, on the last tackle, Aiton dabbed a kick through which Singleton touched down, though Sinfield’s kick bounced away off a post.
Leeds came away with nothing after opting to tap a penalty in front of the posts, which would have opened a two-score gap.
They got away with it as, Cockayne knocked-on near Leeds’ line and Campese was penalised for dissent.
The kick took Rhinos into Rovers territory, Burrow, Ward and McGuire handled and Hall went in at the corner, Sinfield landing a tremendous goal to give Leeds some breathing space.
With nine minutes left Greenwood was penalised for holding down Jamie Peacock and Sinfield kicked Leeds three scores clear at 30-16.
In the final moments, Sinfield capped a memorable evening for him personally, when he finished off some good work by Burrow and added the extras for a personal points tally of 16 points.
There was a lot of interference in the first half, which Hicks – who is having a good season – began to clamp down on after half-time.
The penalty count was 2-1 in Leeds’ favour before the break and finished 7-6 to the hosts.
Rhinos under-19s suffered a 40-10 defeat by Hull in the curtain-raiser, after trailing 20-0 at the break.
Nick Rawsthorne and George Milton scored Leeds’ tries and Jordan Lilley added one conversion.
Super League champions St Helens came through a tough examination at in-form Hull FC, winning 17-10 at the KC Stadium.
Kieron Cunningham’s men were never in complete control by the Humber until a last-minute Jordan Turner drop goal gave them a two-score lead.
Shannon McDonnell and Tommy Makinson got the Saints tries with Lewis Charnock kicking three goals and Makinson, one.