A WIN’S a win – and not to be sniffed at in Leeds Rhinos’ current plight – but they endured some worrying moments before finally getting the better of Toulouse Olympique.
Rhinos opened their Super-8s Qualifiers campaign with a 48-22 success in what was a must-win game, but up until the final quarter the result was in the balance.
Leeds’ superior fitness and a bit of class told in the end, but Toulouse, who finished third in the Betfred Championship, pushed them hard and some familiar failings were exposed in the closing stages of the first half.
At 20-4 ahead after 28 minutes Rhinos were in command and apparently on course to a big win, but too often this year they have lacked pace, their defence hasn’t been good enough and once something goes against them heads have dropped.
In the final eight minutes of the opening period Rhinos conceded two converted tries and rather than going into the into the break with the game in the bag, they led by only four points and nerves were jangling.
Toulouse scored a freak try to begin their fightback, then an outrageous break up the middle by scrum-half William Barthau, a penalty and a knock-on led to another touchdown.
The first try of the fightback tries was just one of those things, but a good or confident side wouldn’t concede the second. Things could have got much worse for Rhinos – and more interesting for neutral viewers – early in the second half.
Stanislas Robin knocked on from Mark Khierallah’s pass which, had he taken it, would have sent him between the posts for an equalising score.
The conversion would have been a formality, edging Toulouse into a two-point lead and it might have been a different game.
But for once this year, Rhinos rode their luck and after that they played pretty well and there were no more alarms.
It took them until the 55th minute to open a two-score gap, but from then on they were well on top.
Four tries in the final 17 minutes were harsh on Toulouse, but will have given Rhinos some confidence going into Sunday’s round two game at London Broncos who finished the regular season in second place in the Championship, ahead of the French side on points difference.
Brad Dwyer started at hooker for Leeds, in place of the injured Matt Parcell and had a big game, scoring two tries and providing the final pass for one more.
Equally influential was Richie Myler, playing as a lone specialist half-back. He scored the try which finally broke Toulouse’s resistance and set up a couple more. His defence was also a factor in Rhinos’ win.
Prop Dom Crosby made his first start, after two appearances off the bench and again did well, though a high tackle on Tyler Hepi in the second half might well attract the attention of today’s match review panel.
Leeds played with an extra forward, Carl Ablett – for the third time in his Leeds career, all wins – being named at stand-off.
That allowed Joel Moon to switch to centre, where he looked more at home than he has in recent games and Liam Sutcliffe to full-back in place of injury victim Jack Walker.
It was a gamble when a more obvious option would have been to start with Ashton Golding at full-back.
He was recalled, but on the bench in place of Josh Walters.
Golding was introduced as back-up hooker, but finished the match on the left-wing after Ryan Hall hobbled off in the second half.
Hall suffered a knee injury which will be a concern with only six scheduled games left in his Rhinos career.
There was a comeback for Anthony Mullally, after a head injury, among the substitutes, but the luckless Stevie Ward missed out again.
He had been due to return from concussion, but was ill during the week and not risked.
With centre Ash Handley sidelined by a shoulder injury, Jimmy Keinhorst returned and turned in a hard-working performance.
Toulouse probably aren’t going to get promoted, but the Qualifiers are an opportunity for their players to put themselves in the shop window.
The visitors were spirited and attacked with flair, though they made some poor errors which they might be able to get away with against part-time opposition, but were punished by Leeds.
For example, Leeds’ opening try came after they had kicked dead – to give Toulouse a seven-tackle set – but Tony Maurel knocked on at the tap.
Stand-off Johnathon Ford proved he is a class act – and should be playing at a higher level – and scrum-half William Barthau and centre Chris Centrone also caught the eye.
Toulouse were more competitive than the scoreline suggests and while they might not beat any Super League teams in the eights, though it will be a tough away day for Widnes Vikings, they won’t be a pushover.
Rhinos scored first through Dwyer who went over from acting-half after Crosby had been tackled just short.
Sutcliffe converted, but Toulouse hit straight back through Bastien Canet who crossed from Ford’s pass.
There was no goal and Rhinos rallied through a brace of tries from Moon. Moon, who will return to his native Australia when his contract expires at the end of the season, twisted over from Myler’s pass and then put on some footwork to cross after being given the ball by Sutcliffe.
The first try was converted and Leeds went 16 points clear when Myler pounced on an error to put Hall over. Toulouse got back into the game when Ford’s kick, aimed at touch, bounced off Tom Briscoe’s backside, was hacked on by Paul Marcon, hit a post – as Hall was about to collect – and touched down by Bassier Ader.
Rhinos were rattled and with two minutes left in the half Maxime Puech went over from William Barthau’s pass and Khierallah converted the second and third tries to make it 20-16.
After Robin let them off the hook, Rhinos went two scores clear when Dwyer dummied over from acting-half on 55 minutes. Eight minutes later Myler stretched over from Dwyer’s pass after Brad Singleton had been held up over the line.
Adam Cuthbertson powered through from Myler’s inside pass and then Ablett, captain on the day, crossed from Dwyer’s offload. Centrone scored a deserved consolation try for Toulouse, improved by Khierallah, but Ashton Golding scored on the final play on the game.
Sutcliffe finished with six goals from nine attempts. The 12 penalties were shared, Toulouse receiving five to Rhinos’ three in the first half.