With ten members of the 25-man squad missing, probably the best Leeds Rhinos could hope for at high-flying Huddersfield Giants was a competitive performance.
They produced one, an injury-ravaged line-up giving a better account of themselves than the final 40-18 scoreline suggests.
Rhinos showed greater desire than in last month’s Challenge Cup loss on the same ground and – though ultimately they simply didn’t have the tools to get the job done – there were positives to take from it.
Chief among those was teenage stand-off Liam Sutcliffe, who scored a brace of tries in another hugely encouraging display.
Leeds – whose 17 included eight players with 10 or fewer starts to their name – never gave in, even when the cause was lost and while Giants were convincing victors, the margin was harsh on Rhinos.
A final scoreline of 28-18 would have been a fair reflection, but Huddersfield scored 12 points in the final five minutes as Leeds – with their England contingent playing a third game in just over a week – ran out of steam.
Giants were kept in their own half for much of the game, but the home side had too much pace, power and knowhow when they did get into a good attacking position and Leeds did concede a couple of soft scores.
Rhinos cause wasn’t helped by the return of their injury curse, Jamie Jones-Buchanan –who had been prominent in the opening exchanges – limping off with a damaged right knee after just nine minutes.
That offset the return of Carl Ablett, for his first game since breaking a thumb in the Cup defeat at Huddersfield six weeks ago.
He got a start in his favoured second-row role – in place of Chris Clarkson, who was among the substitutes – so Thomas Minns moved up from the bench to take over in the left-centre from the suspended Joel Moon.
Richard Moore – a substitute in the win over Widnes Vikings five days earlier – stepped up off the bench into the front-row, swapping places with Ian Kirke, who again gave a good account of himself.
It was Moore’s first start for Leeds, in his 25th appearance and he showed up well, producing one storming run in the second half, hitting the ball up strongly and cutting out the errors which have sometimes blighted his game.
Rhinos were never in front, though they did cancel out an early Giants try, when Danny Brough and Leroy Cudjoe carved out the opening for Luke Robinson, Brough booting the first of his six goals.
Sutcliffe – one of three 18 year olds in the team, alongside Minns and substitute Jordan Baldwinson – is growing with every game.
There didn’t look to be anything on when he slipped into acting-half a few metres out –and to be fair, probably wouldn’t have been if Giants’ defence had been more switched on – but he showed good awareness and tremendous strength to twist past a posse of tacklers.
Sutcliffe has been handed a pivotal role at a very early age, but he has the rare ability to create himself time and space, even against good opposition.
He’s tough with it and he can defend, so his emergence could prove to be one of the legacies of what is becoming a difficult campaign.
Zak Hardaker converted, but parity didn’t last long. Leeds had an escape when Cudjoe came from an offside position to touchdown Aaron Murphy’s kick, which Ryan Hall allowed to bounce.
But on 20 minutes the hosts hit the front for the second time when Shaun Lunt ducked over from acting-half and then in the next set Murphy crossed after Brough, Lunt, Brett Ferres and Joe Wardle had handled.
On 30 minutes Hall was tackled in the air trying to take Burrow’s cross kick – which was well spotted by referee Richard Silverwood, who had a decent game – and in the subsequent set Paul McShane, Rob Burrow and Sutcliffe worked the ball to Jimmy Keinhorst and his offload was well finished by Jones-Bishop.
Keinhorst is another one who has got a chance due to injury and is showing he has the potential to be regular Super League player.
The final pass looked forward, but the officials were happy with it and the winger was alert enough to narrow the angle, allowing Hardaker a relatively straightforward conversion.
Giants got back-to-back penalties and after Brad Singleton and Hardaker had held David Faiumu up over the line, Ferres crossed from a pass by Brough, whose conversion made it 22-12 at the break.
Leeds might have reduced the deficit when they were awarded a penalty in front of the posts, but – with the stadium clock not working – they opted for a tap and were tackled in possession as the hooter sounded.
Rhinos applied some heavy pressure at the start of the second period, thanks to some Giants errors, a couple of penalties and the odd 50-50 call.
With Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire among the players missing, Leeds lacked that bit of magic to find a way through, though – to be fair – they didn’t have much joy on attack against Giants when they were at full-strength.
Giants looked much more clinical when they got close to Rhinos’ line and they put the game out of the visitors’ reach on the hour when Cudjoe crossed from Lunt’s pass. Grix was yellow carded for a professional foul after dropping Hardaker’s bomb with 12 minutes left and Jones-Bishop got over the line moments later, but referee Silverwood ruled the pass went forward.
Rhinos got the try they deserved soon afterwards when Mitch Achurch got into space from Burrow’s pass.
He returned the ball and the scrum-half put Sutcliffe over for his second, Hardaker again adding the extras.
Giants, though, finished on top as Brough put Lunt in for his second touchdown with five left and then Grix returned to cross after Larne Patrick and Murphy had handled. The penalty count finished 8-8, 5-4 in Rhinos’ favour in the first half.
Huddersfield Giants: Grix, McGillvary, Cudjoe, Wardle, Murphy, Brough, Robinson, Lunt, Patrick, Kopczak, Ferres, Ta’ai, Lawrence. Subs (all used): Crabtree, Faiumu, Cording, Ferguson.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Jones-Bishop, Keinhorst, Minns, Hall, Sutcliffe, Burrow, Moore, McShane, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Singleton. Subs (all used): Kirke, Clarkson, Achurch, Baldwinson.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield)