Leeds Rhinos showed few signs of over-celebrating their Challenge Cup semi-final win as they toughed out a 34-16 win over Bradford Bulls.
It was Leeds’ sixth straight win in all competitions and Bulls’ first defeat in four since entering administration.
This was an advert for why Bulls should be in Stobart Super League – or at least Leeds need them to be. It attracted a season’s best Headingley Carnegie crowd of 18,520 – including a big away following – and they were richly entertained.
There were errors a plenty, but it was a derby like these sides used to produce, before Bulls’ decline set in.
Rhinos won with comfortably on the scoreboard, but it was a hard-fought battle and – despite conceding three tries – they had to dig deep in defence.
Bulls went ahead in the fourth minute through Elliott Whitehead and it was 6-6 at the break, but two tries at the start of the second period gave Leeds control and they added three more – to Bulls’ two – in the final 15.
Bulls got off to a flier as Whitehead came up with a sprint finish from Shaun Ainscough’s pass after Luke Gale had sent Brett Kearney into a gap.
Only a fine tackle by Kallum Watkins – who had a fine game – on Kearney in midfield prevented Bulls breaking clear in the next set and they dominated the opening exchanges, as Leeds struggled for go-forward.
The hosts got over Bulls’ line the first time they got into a threatening attacking position. Darrell Griffin’s storming run was carried on by Rob Burrow, he offloaded and Jamie Jones-Buchanan hacked on, picked up and went over, only for referee Steve Ganson to rule the No 7’s pass had been forward.
Bulls were awarded a penalty in the set from the scrum, but Jarrod Sammut – who had a nightmare on his return to the side after injury – failed to find touch
On the counter Stevie Ward cut through and Danny McGuire went close from his pass. Then Sinfield and Zak Hardaker moved the ball to the right and Kallum Watkins went over from the latter’s pass.
Ward stepped up off the bench to start in the second-row in place of Brett Delaney, who moved into the left centre to cover for Carl Ablett, who missed out to rest a minor hamstring injury.
Delaney went off with damage to his left thumb eight minutes before the break and Ward took over in the centre. The teenager had another eye-catching game, though Delaney’s injury will be a worry for Leeds with now just four games to go before Wembley.
Richard Moore was recalled among the substitutes, but Brent Webb was not yet fit to return from his knee problem.
Leeds might have gone ahead moments after Watkins’ try when Jones-Buchanan stormed into a gap, but he couldn’t get a pass away to the supporting Hardaker and Kearney stood his ground to make the try-saving tackle.
At the other end Karl Pryce stormed away down Bulls’ left, but Ben Jones-Bishop – another big performer for Rhinos – got over to make a tackle and the Bradford winger’s pass, which Sammut touched down from, was forward.
It was a game of half-chances throughout the first period, Gale going agonisingly close to restoring Bradford’s lead just before the break, but Leeds struck twice straight away afterwards to take a grip on the game.
Sammut’s error turned over possession near Bradford’s line and Watkins ran a terrific angle on to Hardaker’s pass to nudge the Rhinos ahead on 46.
Then moments later Leeds were in again. Burrow’s shallow bomb was tapped by Ward to Sinfield, who fed Hardaker. He put up a towering kick, Sammut and Pryce collided and Watkins pounced on the scraps, picking up and hurling a pass to Shaun Lunt, who went in for his 100th career try.
Rhinos were reduced to 12 men on 58 minutes when Sinfield was, correctly, sin-binned for tackling Hargreaves without the ball in front of Leeds’ posts.
Earlier, in the first half, Hargreaves had aimed a head-butt at the chest of Ryan Bailey right in front of Ganson and touch judge George Stokes, who seemed not to notice.
Jones-Bishop tackled Pryce into touch just short and Jamie Peacock held Manase Manuokafo up over the Leeds line as – on the back of a stream of penalties – Bulls pounded Leeds’ line.
That do-or-die defence was rewarded seconds later – just before Sinfield’s return. Jones-Buchanan led a break out which ended when Danny McGuire danced away and supplied Kylie Leuluai, who ran at the line before offloading to Hardaker, whose try capped another fine game. He also landed the goal, his first for Leeds.
As often happens, Bulls pulled a try back when Leeds were restored to full-strength, Olivier Elima crashing over and Gale adding his second conversion.
That might have set up a tense finish, but in the set from the restart Jamie Langley dropped the ball in front of his own posts and McGuire picked up to scamper over, Sinfield’s fourth goal making it 30-12.
Pryce got over for an unconverted consolation try two minutes from time, but there was still time for Sinfield to cross on the final play of the game, from a Gale error, though his conversion attempt hit a post.
The penalty count was 3-3 at half-time and finished 10-3 in Bulls’ favour, which makes Rhinos’ defensive effort more impressive.
Bulls’ future remains in doubt after an RFL spokesman said they have been told by the club’s administrator that he has yet to receive a formal, written take-over offer.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Delaney, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ward, Bailey. Subs (all used) Kirke, Griffin, Moore, Lunt.
Bradford Bulls: Kearney, Ainscough, Platt, Lulia, Pryce, Sammut, Gale, Manuokafoa, L’Estrange, Hargreaves, Elima, Whitehead, Langley. Subs (all used) O’Brien, Olbison, Burgess, Walker.
Referee: Steve Ganson (St Helens).
lA YOUNG Rhinos reserve side produced an outstanding display to beat Bulls under-20s 46-8 in the curtain-raiser.
Jamel Chisholm scored three tries, Jimmy Keinhorst crossed twice and Thomas Minns, Josh Sunley and Weller Hauraki completed Rhinos’ haul, with Sean Casey landing seven goals.