IT WAS tense, scrappy and frustrating, but beggers can’t be choosers and Leeds Rhinos will be happy to take the precious two points from their 24-22 win over London Broncos at Anfield.
They almost blew it. Appropriately for the occasion, Rhinos have a habit of magically making what should be a winning lead disappear and from 24-10 up and cruising with 12 minutes left, they found themselves clinging grimly to a two-point lead with five remaining.
Rhinos got off to a terrific start, scoring two tries in the opening 10 minutes and playing some good stuff in the process, but then let London back into it through the usual failings of errors and penalties and Broncos finished the opening period the stronger team.
The second half began in similar fashion with an early Leeds try and they offered nothing on attack after that until the start of the third quarter.
In the meantime, London had pulled four points back and they pressed strongly for a long period before Rhinos hit them with two tries in quick succession.
That should have been enough, but Leeds are very fragile and, having defended pretty well to that point, caved in alarmingly by conceding two converted tries, though they did manage to hang on through a frantic finale, which is all that matters.
Jack Walker’s return at full-back – in place of the injured Tui Lolohea – was influential and his departure in the final stages played a part in London’s rally.
Richie Myler has his critics, but he was outstanding, making a vital tackle in the opening period and scoring Rhinos’ last try.
With Hull KR beating Salford in the preceding game, both sides knew the losers would be two points adrift at the bottom.
It should have been much more comfortable than it was though and Leeds are nowhere near out of the woods and they will need a big improvement to beat Wakefield Trinity in two weeks’ time.
The opening exchanges were encouraging. Walker got over the line after just three minutes, from Myler’s pass, but referee James Child ruled it out without consulting his video assistant Chris Kendall.
In the next set, Trent Merrin went high on Luke Yates 35 metres out in front of the posts, but – maybe surprisingly in the circumstances – London opted not to try for the two.
That reflected their confidence – and probably how poor Leeds’ defence has been this year – but Rhinos held out and scored in their next set.
James Donaldson’s off-load to Walker began the attack. Cameron Smith went on a strong run and, after he was halted, Liam Sutcliffe powered over from acting-half and also converted.
That was after five minutes and four later they were in again. Brad Dwyer’s off-load caught the defence flat-footed, Merrin shrugged off several would be tacklers to keep the ball alive and then slung a long pass to the left wing where Ash Handley finished in considerable style.
Handley had a fine game, making some strong carries. At that stage Rhinos looked, if not a high-quality side, then at least a half-decent one, but all season they have been unable to sustain good rugby for other than limited spells.
They were faultless in the opening 19 minutes, but then the errors began. Cameron Smith lost possession in the subsequent set, Merrin knocked on and then Dwyer off-loaded to an opponent.
The cumulative effect was to take the early steam out of Rhinos and give London a leg up into the contest. Not only that, but on top of the errors, Rhinos conceded six penalties in the opening 24 minutes. That has been such a familiar story this year and they there was the usual outcome following Broncos’ sixth penalty when an overlap was created on Leeds’ left and Ryan Morgan went over for a try which Kieran Dixon converted.
Confidence has clearly been lacking this year so it’s a positive when they back themselves, but they need to be smarter about it.
Against the coaching staff’s advice Rhinos turned down two points when James Cunningham was penalised in front of the posts for interference on Nathaniel Peteru, but Handley and Matt Parcell were both held up over the line.
Taking the tap was a mistake, though not a particularly costly one thanks to a stunning try-saving tackle by Myler on Alex Walker when he looked a certain scorer.
That preserved Rhinos’ four-point advantage at the break and they doubled that a couple of minutes into the second half through Walker.
Jordan Abdull hoofed a kick out on the full, Harry Newman went on a strong run in the subsequent set and then Walker put on some nice footwork to cut through from Myler’s fine pass. Sutcliffe missed the conversion, from just to the left of the posts and the gap was back down to four points with half an hour left. Yet again it came from an error. Rhinos have to be better in yardage sets, bringing the ball away from their own line.
Constantly turning possession over cheaply inevitably leads to tries being conceded and so it proved when Mikolaj Oledzki lost the ball and Abdull dipped a shoulder to duck over from Cunningham’s pass, though Dixon’s attempt to add the extras was off target.
Leeds dug deep in defence after that, for a spell when they had very little ball, then two tries in five minutes gave them some breathing space.
First Newman slipped an off-load to Handley, he was pulled down and the centre showed great awareness to sneak over from acting-half.
There was no goal, but Leeds had a stroke of luck when Alex Sutcliffe broke down the right with Watkins in support.
The 20-year-old, in only his second Super League appearance, threw a poor pass inside, but Myler scooped the ball from Watkins’ bootlaces and dashed over.
Liam Sutcliffe converted to make it 24-10 with 11 minutes left. Those inside Anfield who haven’t seen Leeds play this year thought it was game over, but Rhinos need more than a 14-point cushion even with time running out.
First, London regained the ball from a short restart and Abdull went over for his second try, then Alex Walker crossed off Eliott Kear’s pass.
Dixon improved both to cut the gap to two with six minutes left, but that was as close as they got.
There were some strange decisions from referee Child – also the grass was green and the sun came up in the morning.
One of the oddest was a penalty against Donaldson for moving off the mark/not playing the ball cleanly when it was clearly kicked out by a London defender.
Leeds were pinged twice for that alleged offence and – remarkably – they were the only penalties in the second half, the count finishing a hefty nine-three in Broncos’ favour.