ON THE plus side, Leeds Rhinos won’t have any distractions as they battle against relegation.
The negative is not only will they be watching the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final on television, but also their flagging confidence and reputation has suffered yet another kicking going into a run of must-win games in the Qualifiers.
Rhinos have won just two of their last 13 meetings with top-flight sides and were thumped 48-12 on a big stage by a Warrington Wolves team they were at least on a par with just three months ago.
Their loss of form since Easter, not that they were playing particularly well in the first place, has been spectacular and deeply worrying for anyone connected with the club.
Leeds have been the northern hemisphere’s outstanding team over the past 14 years and even when struggling in the league have been able to turn on the style in the big games.
That was then, when they had the likes of Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow – and before that Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Ali Lauitiiti or Keith Senior – to come up with something special when it really mattered.
Now they lack pace, creativity and leadership and yesterday’s semi-final highlighted how far behind the top-four teams Rhinos have fallen.
Given their current circumstances, the first priority was a good performance and a positive result would have been a bonus. They got neither.
A few calls went against Rhinos – Warrington scored a try from a clear forward pass and Leeds had one chalked off that wasn’t, both at key times.
They were also disrupted by injuries – full-back Jack Walker (hamstring) going off early in the game and Ash Handley (shoulder) not appearing in the second half and Matt Parcell (rib) also picking up an injury which left them with only one available substitute – but the harsh fact is they aren’t strong enough to cope with such setbacks.
It was a one-sided game and Leeds never looked like they believed they could win. They came third-best in a two-horse race.
Rhinos fielded a much stronger side than the one thumped 38-22 at Salford in their final Super League game. Ryan Hall, Richie Myler, Brett Ferres and Jamie Jones-Buchanan – who hadn’t played since May – returned from injury.
Walker and new dads Adam Cuthbertson and Mikolaj Oledzki were recalled after being rested at Salford. Leeds were without Mitch Garbutt due to a knee injury as well as Cup-tied duo Jordan Thompson and on-loan Warrington man Dom Crosby.
Jimmy Keinhorst and Cameron Smith were both dropped. Anthony Mullally – who has been sidelined due to concussion – and Ashton Golding were the players left out from the initial squad.
Keinhorst, Mullally and Golding all warmed up before the game. Kallum Watkins, Stevie Ward and Brett Delaney remain on the casualty list.
Though Leeds led briefly, Warrington always looked the better team and could have been out of sight even earlier than they were had their finishing been sharper.
Warrington twice spilled the ball over Leeds’ line in the opening exchanges from kicks by Tyrone Roberts and Kevin Brown. After eight minutes Roberts broke through and though Parcell made the tackle, he held on too long and was penalised. Roberts got up to take the two. Ablett’s tackle forced a knock-on in the set from the restart and Leeds, having not been in the game up to that point, made their first opportunity count.
Parcell, restored to the starting line-up with Brad Dwyer on the bench, almost scampered over and then on the last tackle Ryan Hall went on the blindside from acting-half 10 metres out to score a clever try which Liam Sutcliffe converted from the touchline.
Warrington should have scored their first try six minutes later, at the end of the first quarter. Stefan Ratchford ghosted into a gap from Brown’s pass, but didn’t back himself and lost the ball in a two-man tackle on the line.
Soon after that Parcell went over from acting-half, but Myler was ruled to have knocked-on playing the ball. On another day it would have been a penalty to Leeds for interference on the No 7, but that proved to be a pivotal moment in the game as Leeds went from 6-2 ahead to 26-6 down in 22 devastating minutes.
Tom Lineham broke past Brett Ferres and Myler from the scrum and raced 80 metres to score a try which Roberts converted. And at the end of the next set, Roberts put up a high kick, which Toby King snatched from Hall’s grasp and the centre offloaded to Josh Charnley who dived over at the corner.
The final pass looked forward, but that was outside video official James Child’s remit and he backed up the on-field decision of try.
Roberts’ touchline conversion opened a two-score gap and he landed his fourth goal soon afterwards, on the half hour. A penalty carried Warrington upfield and Brown stepped through a static defence from man-of-the- match Daryl Clark’s pass. Rhinos had just one chance to get back into the game before the break when Ferres went over from Myler’s pass, but he was held up.
Myler then sent a kick dead and, illustrating the difference between the teams, Warrington spotted an opportunity with seconds remaining in the half and took it, Ben Murdoch-Masila going over after Roberts and Brown had combined.
The conversion opened a 20-point gap at the interval, but Rhinos showed some spirit in the second half, pulling a try back on 44 minutes when Cuthbertson went over from Dwyer’s pass.
Sutcliffe converted and Myler stretched over the line soon afterwards following a one-two with Ferres, but referee Chris Kendall ruled a forward pass.
A try then might have put some pressure on Warrington, but they scored next, just before the hour, when Charnley finished off from Clark’s break.
Roberts’ sixth goal reopened a 20-point gap and he booted a penalty with 16 minutes left and it got nasty after that.
Roberts kicked a penalty, Toby King galloped over from long-range after Warrington created a huge overlap inside their own half and then Bryson Goodwin simply ran through a tired defence.
Roberts missed with that conversion, the only blemish on a fine display of place kicking. In the final seconds Sutcliffe hurled a pass straight at Lineham who went 90 metres to score between the posts.
Warrington took the mickey by letting veteran Ben Westwood take the conversion from straight in front, but his miss kept the score below 50.
The eight penalties were shared. The count was three-two to Warrington in the first half.
Warrington will play Catalans Dragons at Wembley. The French side shocked St Helens 35-16 in the first part of yesterday’s double-header at University of Bolton Stadium.