SOME OF the doubts surrounding new-look Leeds Rhinos were obliterated in sensational style at AJ Bell Stadium.
Rhinos were given a much tougher afternoon than the 46-14 final scoreline suggests, but it was a very impressive performance to hand coach Dave Furner his first win as Leeds coach.
Leeds are a work in progress and this one result and display does not mean they are the finished article, but it proved when they do get their game together they have the potential to be a formidable side.
Hosts Salford Red Devils, who had won their opening two games, began strongly, went 6-0 ahead and looked too fast and strong for Leeds in the opening quarter of an hour.
But Rhinos stuck to their guns, clawed their way back into the contest and were excellent – with and without the ball – as they stormed into an 18-6 lead at the break.
The home team started the second half the better and twice cut the gap to six points. They were still right in it coming up to the hour mark, but then Rhinos hit a purple patch to run away with the match.
They may have been confident going in, but nobody would have predicted such an emphatic margin.
Leeds had some shaky moments early in both halves, but when they hit their stride they were very impressive.
Tellingly, all three imports had big games. Trent Merrin set a fine lead in the pack – and created Rhinos’ opening try.
Centre Konrad Hurrell, despite a knock in the first half, had another strong match and opened his try account with a brace and, most notably, Tui Lolohea was magnificent at stand-off.
Full-back Jack Walker had a tough evening in the previous game at Wigan, but was first class, scoring an outstanding hat-trick – all down to terrific support play – clearing his lines well and making some crucial interventions in defence.
After looking off the pace at Wigan, captain Kallum Watkins proved class is permanent. He was a big threat in attack and also defended strongly.
Another honourable mention goes to substitute hooker Matt Parcell who ripped Salford apart in the second half, but overall it was simply a fine team effort which will create confidence in the changing room and on the terraces.
That did not look likely early on. Rhinos conceded a poor try in the set from Salford’s first penalty, an obstruction on half-way. Jackson Hastings forced his way to the line and Joey Lussick ploughed over from acting-half, the extras being added by Ken Sio. Hastings was a threat throughout and this was his first defeat as a Salford player.
Rhinos had an escape when Hastings created an overlap on Salford’s right, but Welham’s pass was forward.
That was a turning point. Leeds received a penalty in the subsequent set and the next time the hosts had possession they were 12 points behind.
Merrin’s superb off-load was finished powerfully by Cuthbertson and, in the next set, Watkins made a superb break through the middle and Walker was on his shoulder to cross unopposed.
Salford’s restart went out on the full and on the last tackle from the penalty Lolohea dabbed a low kick behind the defence and Hurrell stormed through to score his first Leeds try.
It was a stunning turnaround considering Salford had been all over Leeds for most of the opening 17 minutes. Robert Lui’s desperate tackle kept Hurrell out and Lussick had to react quickly to pull down Walker when he threatened to break away from close to Rhinos’ line.
Salford also had chances. Jansin Turgut had a touchdown ruled out for a double-movement and Sio was tackled into touch by Watkins from Junior Sa’u’s pass, but their best opportunity came two minutes before the interval.
Josh Jones’ pass sent Lui rampaging into space and Hastings and Lussick were both in support, but somehow Leeds’ scrambling defence kept them out and then Watkins came up with a fine tackle on George Griffin on the last.
Salford’s second try came four minutes into the second half. Niall Evalds did well to take Lolohea’s high kick almost on his own line, but them burst past Richie Myler on a break to halfway. Leeds survived until the last tackle, but cracked when Lussick and Hastings linked to put Jones over for a try which Sio improved.
Walker’s restart went out on the full, via the crossbar and Salford were agonisingly close to scoring again, but Sa’u fumbled just short as he tried to off-load, another key moment.
On 52 minutes a foul on Myler escalated into a multi-player melee. When things calmed down, Turgut was yellow carded and Lolohea took the two from the original offence.
Sio cancelled that out – and ran down the clock – with a penalty in front of Leeds’ posts four minutes later, but from then on it was all Leeds.
On 59 minutes Hurrell was too strong for Welham from five metres out off Brett Ferres’ pass, but much of the credit went to Watkins whose superb long ball created the opening.
That was unconverted, but just moments later Leeds were in again when Parcell scooted over from acting-half 10 metres out for a try reminiscent of his Dream Team season two years ago.
That was soft from Salford’s point of view, but Rhinos’ sixth try, soon afterwards, was brilliantly executed. Lolohea’s running game was impressive, but his kicks – both high and low – also caused Salford huge problems. He dabbed the ball into space and Walker read it perfectly to gather and cross.
The full-back was in again in the next set, supporting a brilliant break by Parcell. Lolohea improved all three and from 20-14 on 59 minutes, Leeds led 42-14 10 later. There was time for one more touchdown, Ash Handley finishing well at the corner after more good work by Hurrell and Parcell. The penalty count finished nine-eight to Rhinos (six-three in Leeds’ favour in the first half).
Boss Dave Furner had hoped to field the same team that faced Wigan Warriors last week, but was forced into a couple of changes with second-rower Liam Sutcliffe dropping out due to illness and substitute prop Mikolaj Oledzki because of a hip injury.
Brad Singleton was recalled on the bench and Cameron Smith came in alongside him for his first Leeds appearance of the season, both having played for Featherstone Rovers on dual-registration seven days earlier. Cuthbertson stepped up to start, Merrin switched from prop to loose-forward and Stevie Ward was in the second-row.
Substitute James Donaldson was concussed trying to tackle Sa’u in the first half and did not return after a head injury assessment. Carl Ablett (ankle surgery), Dom Crosby (knee and ankle operations) and Jamie Jones-Buchanan (ill) remained on Rhinos’ casualty list.
Owen Trout warmed up as 18th man and Leeds’ Luke Briscoe, Harry Newman and Alex Sutcliffe all played for Rovers in their Championship clash with Leigh Centurions.