LEEDS RHINOS are into the hat for the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup quarter-finals, but only just.
What looked like being a comfortable win became yet another nail-biter as Leeds’ frailty when they get into what should be a decisive lead was again exposed.
Rhinos played well in the first half of their 23-20 win at Widnes Vikings – their first win here since 2014 – particularly in defence and were worthy of their 11-4 half-time lead.
They survived a spell a man down and scored a couple of good tries to go 10 points ahead, but – yet again – an error immediately after they had scored let the opposition back into the game.
The same thing happened last week when Rhinos were 22-11 ahead against Warrington and it cost them the points.
They did it twice last night in sets from Widnes restarts and almost blew it after scoring two quick tries at the start of the second half.
From 23-4 ahead on 50 minutes, it was 23-20 nine later, a completely avoidable situation due as much, probably more, to Rhinos’ failings than good play from Widnes, though they did take the opportunities handed to them in that spell.
Rhinos gave too many penalties away – the count was four-three against them in the first half and finished nine-four – and played with no control at all once they had built what should have been a game-ending lead.
After getting within a try of the lead, Widnes did almost all the pressing, but they made a series of errors in good field position – most crucially when Aaron Heremaia lost the ball over the line with three minutes left.
Rhinos got away with it, but it was a poor performance in the final half an hour. There were some decent individual efforts though.
Stevie Ward was outstanding, Richie Myler, Ashton Golding and Jack Walker – one error apart – were also good, while Anthony Mullally and Nathaniel Peteru made an impact off the bench.
Rhinos were reduced to 16 fit players inside the opening quarter when Carl Ablett suffered damage to an ankle.
He was helped off the field after lengthy treatment, but initial indications were the injury was not major.
With Brad Singleton sidelined by a broken hand Mikolaj Oledzki – who played on dual-registration for Featherstone Rovers last week – returned to the team, making his first start for Leeds in his 13th senior appearance. He was also injured, late on.
Ryan Hall missed out because of a shoulder injury and his place on the left-wing was taken by Golding.
That allowed Walker to return at full-back after a six-game absence with a damaged ankle.
Brad Dwyer had recovered from a fractured elbow and took over from Josh Walters – who warmed up as 18th man – on the bench.
Matt Parcell and Brett Ferres swapped places, the former resuming as starting hooker following the failed experiment in last week’s defeat by Warrington Wolves.
Leeds had the first chance when Ash Handley made a break from Moon’s pass, but Widnes scrambled back well.
It was a muscular start from both teams and sheer power almost took Greg Burke over the line on seven minutes, but Walker proved his defensive qualities with a super tackle to halt the big prop just short.
Parcell had an opportunity from Kallum Watkins’ pass, but Rhys Hanbury made a try saving tackle.
Leeds turned the ball over near Widnes’ line and Lloyd Whitre split Rhinos down the middle with Charly Runciman in support.
Golding came across from his wing to stop Runciman and made another vital tackle when the ball was offloaded to Hanbury. He took too long to get off and was sin-binned for a professional foul. Widnes opted not to take the two and some terrific defence kept them out, then Rhinos scored on the counter.
Myler’s kick rebounded off a defender and was picked up by Mullally who immediately shipped the ball on to Walker.
He raced towards the line and then hurled out a long pass which Tom Briscoe collected to cross at the corner.
With Ablett down in back play, Watkins had to wait a while to take the conversion and his kick was off target.
Leeds had an escape on 21 minutes when Tom Gilmore chipped over the defence to Rhinos’ left, exploiting the gap left by Golding’s yellow card and Ryan Ince picked up to race over, only for the touchdown to be ruled out for offside.
Rhinos, therefore, survived Golding’s sin-binning intact and scored again within seconds of his return, Ward breaking through and slipping a well-timed pass back to Myler who crossed unopposed.
Watkins added the extras, but Cuthbertson knocked on on the first play from the restart and Widnes scored following the scrum, Matty Whitley charging over after Aaron Heremaia and Hanbury shifted the ball to the hosts’ left.
There was no conversion and Leeds scored the only other point of the half. With three minutes left a Widnes error handed them possession inside the hosts’ half and – to the surprise and amusement of everyone in the away end – Myler landed a perfect drop goal to open a two-score gap.
It was Leeds’ first of the season – after they had conceded six – and only the second one-pointer of Myler’s career.
He was given a standing ovation when he got into position for the restart.
It could have been better for Leeds, but for some excellent defence from Widnes to keep Parcell and Jamie Jones-Buchanan out in the final seconds.
Rhinos did increase their lead four minutes into the second half, with a high-quality try. Joel Moon jinked into a gap and passed over the top to Ash Handley.
He ran towards the corner and slipped out a superb pass to Golding and Watkins iced the cake with a brilliant conversion.
In the next set Handley, having his best game for several weeks, dashed clear and would have scored but for Gilmore’s ankle tap.
But Myler took the defence on in the final tackle, fed Ward and he twisted over powerfully for his first try of the season.
The conversion made it 23-4, but the old failings resurfaced. This time it was a penalty in the set from the restart, for Oledzki playing the ball properly, rather than an error but the effect was the same.
The impressive Whitley went over from close-range and Gilmore added the conversion to cut the gap to 13 points with 30 minutes left.
A penalty against Brett Ferres led to Alex Gerrard going over and then Walker dropped a kick and Charly Runciman crossed on the final play.
Gilmore converted the third and fourth tries to cut Leeds’ lead to three points and they turned down an easy two from a penalty in front of the post with 15 minutes to play, which proved the value of the one-pointer.
Rhinos held on under huge pressure, but more by luck and good judgement.