IT WASN’T pretty – in fact for the most part it was downright ugly – but Leeds Rhinos have taken a giant step towards Betfred Super League survival.
The 16-6 win at Widnes Vikings was possibly one of the worst games Rhinos have been involved in during the summer era, but almost unbearably tense from start to finish.
Widnes missed two huge opportunities in the second half, one to go two scores ahead and the other which would have given them the lead with four minutes left and almost certainly have won them the game.
Rhinos haven’t had much good fortune this year, but on this occasion the rugby gods smiled on them as both chances were put down and Leeds went on to seal it.
The first half was dire and illustrated exactly why these two sides are where they are.
The error count wasn’t particularly high, but it was littered with with penalties and the standard was desperately poor.
From Rhinos it was one-out stuff, lacking any imagination. Widnes showed more desire, they tried to promote the ball and made some crucial tackles near their own line.
Rhinos scored first, late in the opening half, but a poor defensive effort allowed Widnes to hit back and they led by two at the interval.
Leeds were put under heavy pressure at the start of the second 40, but one moment of inspiration – a 40-20 from Liam Sutcliffe – led to them going back in front.
They lived on their nerves after that, but Sutcliffe again stepped up to the plate – after being quite anonymous for most of the match – to set up the clinching score.
With three games remaining Rhinos still have work to do, but two more wins should secure their top-flight status and they have Championship sides Halifax and Toronto Wolfpack yet to play. It was Widnes’ 17th successive defeat and they look doomed.
Yesterday was one of those occasions when the result matters more than the performance, which is a good job because Rhinos’ attack was dismal.
Having scored 36 points in their previous game against Hull KR – and lost by two – with the ball they never got going, but their defence was strong and they were willing to work hard for each other.
Rhinos lacked size with Anthony Mullally and Adam Cuthbertson – who had been ill during the week, but was available for selection - both dropped.
Mikolaj Oledzki was 18th man so Dom Crosby – back after a two-game ban – Brad Singleton and substitute Nathaniel Peteru were the only props in Leeds’ 17.
Jimmy Keinhorst returned at centre in place of the injured Stevie Ward and made an absolutely crucial tackle on Joe Mellor when Rhinos were under the pump in the first half.
Jordan Thompson stepped up off the bench to make his first Rhinos start.
Cameron Smith and Josh Walters were both recalled among the substitutes.
Widnes received the first penalty of the game, then the next five – including a double for dissent – went to Leeds, leading to a team warning for the hosts.
The closest Leeds got was when Jamie Jones-Buchanan was held up over the line.
Widnes almost went ahead on the 22nd minute, after a penalty of their own. Nice hands by Lloyd White and Liam Finn moved the ball left to Mellor and he put Owen Buckley over, but the final pass was forward.
When Rhinos got another penalty in front of the posts after 27 minutes assistant-coach Chev Walker raced on to the field with a kicking tee, but was ignored and Widnes again held out, with Charlie Gubb making a fine tackle on Jones-Buchanan and Krisnan Inu denying captain for the day Brett Ferres.
Having spent so much time near Widnes’ line, Rhinos only score of the first half came from close to their own.
Joe Lyons’ pass went behind the attacking line and was picked up by Richie Myler. He held on long enough for Luke Briscoe to arrive in support and the former Featherstone man was never going to be caught, though Sutcliffe could not add the extras.
Rhinos’ one defensive lapse came three minutes before the interval. Finn, the veteran half-back on loan from Wakefield Trinity before joining Newcastle Thunder next year, hit Tom Olbison with a nice pass and he should have been wrapped up, but spun out of Peteru’s pass to touch down.
Inu’s conversion made it 6-4 and he missed a huge chance seven minutes into the second half when Finn kicked over the line and the centre seemed to have made a superb catch, but fumbled before he could touch down.
Soon after that Brad Singleton made a strong tackle to keep Olbison out and then Lyons’ kick on the last came off Ferres’ leg and he would have had nobody in front of him if he’d picked up, but it took a wicked bounce to Inu.
Rhinos eventually survived three successive sets and, having offered nothing, got back in front on the 55th minute.
Sutcliffe landed a 40-20 out of the blue to give them first first attacking opportunity of the half. Widnes seemed to be in control defensively, but a superb run across field by star man Jack Walker gave Rhinos some momentum.
He was tackled by Macgraff Leuluai, but played the ball quickly and an alert Matt Parcell raced over from acting-half.
Sutcliffe added the extras, but it took a fine tackle from Joel Moon to keep ex-Leeds man Weller Hauraki out.
A knock-on by Luke Briscoe deep in Rhinos territory was almost punished, but the defence muscled up to keep Gubb at bay and then Keinhorst, who had a spell on loan at Widnes earlier this year, made a miraculous tackle on Mellor.
With three minutes left, Lyons – one of a crop of impressive young players on Widnes’ books – kicked ahead, Inu picked up and turned the ball outside to Patrick Ah Van 20 metres out, but he fumbled.
That might have been the most important knock-on in Rhinos’ Super League history. In the next set Sutcliffe made a break, beat a couple of defenders and turned the ball inside to Myler who scored a priceless try against the club where he began his career.
After 12 penalties in the first half there were only four after the break, shared between the sides. The final count was nine-seven in Rhinos’ favour.