LEEDS RHINOS’ defence of their Betfred Super League title got off to an excellent – if nervy – start when they won 16-12 at Warrington Wolves last night.
It ended a run of two successive round one defeats and was Leeds’ first league victory at HJ Stadium since 2010.
Rhinos were deserved winners, but they did it tough, after leading 12-6 at half-time. Halves Joel Moon and Richie Myler ran the show in the opening 30 minutes and with the forwards driving the ball in strongly and Leeds’ left-side attack starting to click, they were dominant.
A third try might have demoralised the hosts, but – after a Leeds chance went begging – they dug in and halved the deficit before the break.
A brilliant try by Ryan Hall opened a 10-point gap for the second time in the game and Leeds held out under fierce pressure until an error by the otherwise excellent Jack Walker gifted Warrington a converted try with less than two minutes left.
Warrington got a penalty in the next set, which they kicked for touch, but Leeds stood firm for the final two plays.
Rhinos will expect to get more clinical as the season goes on, but their goalline defence was outstanding.
Warrington, who also looked rusty with ball in hand, fired some heavy ammunition at times, but Leeds made a last-gasp effort to keep them out half a dozen occasions.
Leeds played well across the board, with Hall and Matt Parcell having fine games and all three debutants showing up well.
Myler was one of them, with Nathaniel Peteru and Brad Dwyer both coming off the bench.
Not selected from the initial 19-man squad were Ashton Golding and Mitch Garbutt, who suffered a dead leg in the pre-season game at Featherstone Rovers a week ago.
Golding also had a knock and Jimmy Keinhorst warmed-up as 18th man.
Stevie Ward was not available after close-season surgery on a shoulder, but could come into contention to face Hull KR in six day’s time.
Brett Ferres (knee) and Keith Galloway (Achilles) remain on the casualty list.
A dangerous tackle by Moon on Stefan Ratchford gave Warrington the first opportunity and Leeds’ defence had to number up to keep Kevin Brown out before Bryson Goodwin was dragged down on the last.
After that, Rhinos settled into the game and were the better side, though Warrington’s hesitancy under kicks helped their cause.
Liam Sutcliffe also had an early sight of the line, getting on the end of a move involving Adam Cuthbertson, Brad Singleton, Moon and Carl Ablett.
Ryan Atkins made the tackle, then Tyrone Roberts – one of three Wire debutants along with Roberts and Ben Murdoch-Masila – kept Moon out after Tom Briscoe had been halted by Ratchford, who was penalised for interference.
Brett Delaney also went close, from Ablett’s pass in front of the posts and at the end of all that, Myler’s kick was chased by Matt Parcell, referee Phil Bentham handed the decision on and video assistant Ben Thaler awarded a 20-metre tap.
Leeds broke the deadlock after 17 minutes. Moon, who had created a chance for Ryan Hall on the previous play, kicked infield and Jamie Jones-Buchanan made a fantastic catch before rolling over the final defender.
Thaler confirmed the touchdown and Kallum Watkins added the two. Rhinos received a penalty in the next set, Myler kicked on the last and this time Hall made the catch and shimmied over.
Leeds might have scored a third successive try, but Myler could not take Parcell’s pass.
Then a penalty put Warrington on the attack and Jack Hughes went close before a brilliant catch by Sutcliffe from Roberts’ kick snuffed out the danger.
Ratchford knocked on a clearing kick to put Warrington back under pressure, then fumbled again from a grubber by Myler.
The ball was picked up in an offside position and Watkins, who had failed to convert Hall’s try, knocked over the penalty.
Rhinos had been dominant up to that point, but three penalties gave Warrington a leg up back into the game, despite some excellent goal line defence.
Nine minutes before the break Bryson Goodwin – who had just returned from a head injury assessment – forced his way over,moments after a stunning tackle by Jack Walker denied Brown what looked like a certain score.
Goodwin added the extras and Leeds were under heavy pressure for the rest of the half, but managed to hold out, thanks in part to a knock-on by Ben Westwood close to the line in front of the posts .
Rhinos were unfortunate not to add a third try – or at least a penalty – early in the second half when Dwyer put Hall into a gap in midfield, but a couple of errors in good field position let the visitors down.
The first error was by Watkins and Ablett made the second, but he redeemed himself moments later with a brilliant tackle on Atkins a metre out when the Leeds-born centre seemed set to score.
Atkins did get over the line soon afterwards, but was held up by Sutcliffe, Ablett and Walker, Briscoe kept Ben Currie at bay and Goodwin crossed, but Myler and Briscoe prevented him getting the ball down. After all that huge pressure, Leeds countered to score a try out of nothing. It was a cracker.
Briscoe ran across field 20 metres out and fed Hall, who ghosted into space, hit the after-burners to scorch clear and dived past the cover defender at the corner.
There was no goal, but Leeds led by 10 with 24 minutes left and they were close to making the game safe when Brad Singleton got over after some outstanding handling on the last, but was held up and the same happenend to Jack Ormondroyd with 10 left.
In the next set, Warrington opened Leeds up down the visitors’ left and Atkins tried to apply a diving finish, but Walker and Parcell somehow got across to force him into losing the ball.
Cuthbertson got under Ben Murdoch-Masila to hold him up and Goodwin was denied in similar fashion on the next play, with four minutes left.
Two minutes from time Walker failed to deal with a kick by Roberts and Tom Lineham was presented with the easiest of tries, which Goodwin converted, but it was too little, too late.
Walker suffered a facial injury in the process, after a collision with Briscoe.
Warrington finished the game with 16 available players after prop Chris Hill left when his wife went into labour.
The penalty count was 10-8 to Warrington (5-2 to Warrington in the first half).