IT ALWAYS looked a tall order and so it proved.
Leeds Rhinos were outclassed in their Downer World Club Challenge showdown with a hugely-impressive Melbourne Storm at AAMI Stadium yesterday.
Rhinos didn’t play particularly badly, but Storm – despite their season not yet having begun – were too good in every department.
To win, Leeds would have had to be at nine or 10 out of 10 right across the park.
They needed to be squeaky clean in terms of discipline, make few errors, be rock solid in defence, take every chance that came their way – and have the bounce of the ball.
None of those things happened. Leeds conceded some costly – and at time dubious – penalties and were punished for them.
Four of Storm’s seven tries came after Rhinos had been penalised.
Rhinos chanced their arm and tried to play, but that led to a series of errors.
Though they scrambled well and there were some big individual defensive efforts, they were prised open too easily at times.
Despite scoring first, Leeds lacked the know-how to break down a superb Storm defence and they also had no luck.
Injuries to two key players – full-back Jack Walker and loose-forward Stevie Ward, both in the first half – added to their problems.
On another day, against a different team, Rhinos would certainly have scored more points and might have won the game, but that was never really on the cards despite Ryan Hall’s eighth-minute opener.
With Leeds defenders hurling themselves at the opposition and the likes of Walker, Hall and Kallum Watkins looking a threat from the back, Rhinos did give Storm something to think about.
But effort will only get you so far and quality told in the end.
Rhinos stuck at it – typified by Brett Delaney’s astonishing effort to keep Josh Addo-Carr out in the second half, but Storm were in cruise control.
The result will be portrayed as another humiliation for Betfred Super League, but it’s worth noting that Storm beat North Queensland Cowboys by 34-6 in last year’s NRL Grand Final.
They are an outstanding team and though Leeds could and should have got closer, losing to Melbourne is nothing to be ashamed of and it could prove a valuable learning experience for Rhinos.
The Super League outfit weren’t quite one to 13 in the starting line-up, but the only exception was Walker who wears No 24, but is first-choice at the moment.
After missing the win over Hull KR due to a leg injury, Joel Moon returned at stand-off and Liam Sutcliffe reverted to centre, with Jimmy Keinhorst – last week’s hat-trick hero – taking a place among the substitutes.
Ward made his first start of the year at loose-forward and Delaney dropped to the bench.
Lack of size among the forwards was an issue though. Anthony Mullally was the only player to drop out from the previous week, due to a dislocated finger and he joined fellow props Keith Galloway, Mitch Garbutt, Nathaniel Peteru and Mikolaj Oledzki on the casualty list, along with back-rower Brett Ferres.
Rhinos made a terrific start, going ahead after eight minutes. They received back-to-back penalties and opted to attack from the second, in front of the posts. Matt Parcell almost found a way through, Carl Ablett was also tackled on the line, but on the final tackle Ward slipped out a superb pass to Hall and he continued his strong opening to the season by forcing his way over at the corner. Watkins couldn’t convert from wide out and that was as good as it got for Rhinos, who were 18-4 down by the break.
Ward’s forward pass turned over possession 30 metres from Leeds’ line, Storm received their first penalty and from it Jesse Bromwich was too strong close to the line off Brodie Croft’s short pass. Cameron Smith proved he is human by striking his conversion attempt off a post.
Storm’s second try also came following a penalty, Croft jinking over and the video referees confirming the initial decision of try. Smith converted that one and added a penalty six minutes before the break when Brad Dwyer supposedly obstructed Billy Slater – who didn’t feature in the second half due to a shoulder injury – as Rhinos defended a kick.
By that stage Leeds had lost Ward and Walker was also off, with Sutcliffe slotting in at full-back and Keinhorst taking over in the left-centre.
He had Leeds’ only chance in the 32 minutes after Hall’s try, but spilled Ablett’s pass. At 12-4 Leeds were still in the game, but Storm landed a killer punch on the final play of the opening half. It was a brilliant finish by Suliasi Vunivalu, who displayed power, pace and footwork to slice through the defence from the right wing before touching down between the posts, but he got past Moon, Dwyer and Adam Cuthbertson and all will feel they should have done better.
Smith converted and realistically, down by 14, there was no way back for Leeds. After Nelson Asofa Solomona scored in the 44th minute and Smith booted his fourth goal, it was simply a question of how many Storm would win by.
Leeds were hard done to on that occasion. Parcell rocked Smith with an outstanding tackle, the Australia captain didn’t like it and was awarded a penalty and the big substitute went over in the next set.
Felise Kaufusi touched down 12 later, but Leeds held out – and even had spells of pressure – until 10 minutes from time. Will Chambers eased over after Hall and Vunivalu had competed for the ball from a high kick. It looked like a possible knock-on by the Storm man, but the video referees backed up the on-field decision of try.
Watkins was Leeds’ best player and he almost registered a consolation score, but Addo-Carr chased back well to make the try-saving tackle and Rhinos conceded again in the final moments, to Dale Finucane and Cameron Munster converted after the siren.
The penalty count finished 8-8 (4-4 in the first half).