IT WAS a case of so near yet so far for Leeds Rhinos as their season began with a 6-4 defeat at St Helens.
Leeds had enough territory and possession to win the game, but managed only one unconverted try against a strong home defence.
Leeds also tackled their hearts out and conceded just one try themselves, the conversion proving the difference on a night when there was as little between the teams as the scoreline suggests.
It was one Leeds could – and perhaps should – have won, but the game revealed little that wasn’t known already from Rhinos’ point of view.
Saints had a number of chances in the first half, being held up over the line twice and knocking on once, but – aided by a hefty 7-2 advantage in the penalty count and a series of handling errors by the hosts – Leeds did most of the pressing.
They struggled to create clear opportunities though and had to settle for 4-0 lead at the break.
The concern for Rhinos was that Saints would not be as bad in the second half and the visitors’ failure to turn pressure into points would prove costly.
So it proved. Saints went ahead within three minutes of the resumption and though Leeds pressed strongly – and ferociously in a frantic final 10 minutes – they could not quite find a way back into the game.
Defensively, Rhinos were much improved on what they produced last season and their effort was outstanding.
But much improvement is needed in attack. They still lack creativity and options and the kicking game didn’t cause Saints any real problems.
As was the case in the pre-season game at Featherstone, Leeds were caught in possession on the last a number of times.
Danny McGuire missed out due to the quad strain he suffered in Ryan Hall’s testimonial game last month.
He’s confident of being fit for the trip to Leigh Centurions in a week’s time and Rhinos certainly need him fit and firing.
At one stage in the second half Matt Parcell was given a breather and Rob Burrow switched to hooker with Joel Moon moving into the halves alongside Liam Sutcliffe.
Brett Ferres, Brett Delaney and Keith Galloway were the others on Leeds’ casualty list.
Prop Jordan Baldwinson’s Rhinos game time last year was limited to 10 minutes off the bench in a defeat at Salford.
He was rewarded for strong performances in pre-season – and a good showing on dual-registration for Featherstone Rovers last weekend – with a place among the substitutes, though he only got on in the final 10 minutes.
It was Ashton Golding’s first Super League start at full-back since being awarded the No 1 jersey.
The 20-year-old will probably need to bulk-up to make a top-flight career as the last line of defence, but he had a fine game.
He did well to hold Saints second-rower Dominic Peyroux up over the line inside the first five minutes, after a penalty conceded by Brad Singleton, who also had a big dig for the visitors.
On the next play Saints seemed to have created an overlap, but Tom Briscoe shut down Mark Percival and Kallum Watkins joined in to shove him into touch.
Leeds’ only real territory early on came through penalties – four in succession – and their best work was in defence.
Saints started with Tommy Lee at hooker, with James Roby on the bench and it took a fine tackle by Singleton to halt the former Wakefield man before Carl Ablett wrapped up Jon Wilkin on the last. At the other end a couple of poor kicks took the pressure off Saints and twice Leeds were caught in possession on the last tackle.
On both occasions Saints turned the ball over in the next set. On the second of those they got a repeat set and Jamie Jones-Buchanan almost sneaked over on the blindside.
Sutcliffe also threatened the line, then Rhinos moved left and Burrow and Ablett teed-up Joel Moon, who handed-off Ryan Morgan to touch down by the flag.
Video referee Robert Hicks confirmed Phil Bentham’s ruling of try, but Sutcliffe could not convert.
Rhinos had an escape soon afterwards when Theo Fages kicked to the corner and Adam Swift got above Briscoe to make the catch, but he knocked on as he tried to stretch over.
Three minutes before the break Golding hacked Fages’ kick into touch to concede a scrum near Leeds’ line.
Saints thought they had scored in the resulting set when Tommy Makinson forced his way over after Roby, Wilkin and Fages had handled, but Golding got underneath him, Bentham said no try and Hicks agreed.
A penalty straight after the resumption put Saints on the attack and Roby went close before Alex Walmsley looked to have forced his way over.
But Bentham said no try and Hicks agreed, ruling the prop had been held up by Anthony Mullally.
Golding was trapped in goal later in the set and from the drop out Fages sliced through for a try which Percival converted.
The key moment in the game came soon afterwards when Watkins made a clean break with Sutcliffe in support, but Makinson made a world-class tackle to force the stand-off into touch.
At the other end Makinson was denied by Golding’s brilliant try-saving tackle and then Swift knocked on trying to touch down from Fages’ kick.
Leeds could perhaps have gone for goal, to level the scores, when Kyle Amor was penalised in front of the posts 40 metres out, for moving off the mark.
Leeds turned several kickable penalties down and that is a tactic they may need to rethink.
But they kicked for touch and the opportunity was lost when Jimmy Keinhorst committed a similar offence.
The penalty count finished 10-6 in Leeds’ favour.
Rhinos under-19s began their competitive season yesterday with an impressive 20-14 win over Saints at Blackbrook.