A WEARY and injury-ravaged Leeds Rhinos side put in a huge effort, but came up short at Widnes Vikings yesterday.
The 23-6 reverse was Leeds’ fourth successive defeat at Widnes, but they were without a dozen members of their first team squad – 11 of whom would probably have played if fit – and tiredness from their trip to Australia also took its toll.
Despite that, Rhinos’ inexperienced and lightweight team gave their all. There were big performances from Ashton Golding, at full-back and veteran forwards Brett Delaney – in his 200th game for the club – and Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
Josh Walters, one of seven players playing his first game of the season, had a real dig and Mitch Garbutt, on his return from injury, made an impact off the bench.
There was much to admire about their resolve in defence, particularly in the opening 40 when Rhinos withstood waves of pressure.
But Leeds made too many errors and lack of size meant they never got on the front foot.
With the ball in hand Leeds – understandably – looked like a team who weren’t used to playing together.
That was highlighted when Liam Sutcliffe passed into touch as Rhinos tried to put on a final-tackle play late in the first half, but generally they carried little threat close to Widnes’ line.
Under the circumstances Leeds did well to hang in as long as they did and the game didn’t get away from them until the final 10 minutes, when Rhinos were out on their feet and Widnes scored 11 points to inflate their winning margin.
Leeds were 6-4 ahead at the interval, after having been under the cosh for most of the opening half. A steely determination to protect their line kept the champions in it and they caught Widnes napping late on to go in front.
The hosts regained the lead in the third quarter, but Leeds battled away and didn’t go two scores behind until the 71st minute.
Rhinos had an early spell of pressure, from back-to-back penalties – one for a dangerous throw by Tom Olbison on Brad Singleton – and a Matt Whitley knock-on, but the hosts held out comfortably and once they got on the front foot, they threatened to grind Leeds down.
Whitley’s tackle kept Kallum Watkins out, but then visitors had a let off when Rhys Hanbury made a break, only for Danny Craven to spill the pass.
His hands let him down again – dropping another pass from Hanbury – when Widnes created a three versus two overlap on Rhinos’ right-side.
A fine cross kick by Tom Gilmore picked out Krisnan Inu, but he could not take it a couple of metres out.
A Vikings try was coming and it arrived on 20 minutes. Leeds were pressing when Richie Myler kicked straight at Chris Dean.
The scrum-half recovered to make the tackle, but Rhinos were caught offside and in the resulting set Joe Mellor stepped over following a smart offload from Papua New Guinean forward Wellington Albert.
Mellor and half-back partner Tom Gilmore caused Leeds problems throughout, in tandem with Hanbury who was a constant attacking threat from full-back.
Five minutes after the try Hanbury made a clean break with Mellor in support. He took the pass and looked a certain scorer, but Golding got back to make a stunning try-saving tackle and then – after a drop-out – Kallum Watkins then made a fine tackle to keep Hanbury out.
Leeds also survived an unlucky knock-on by Singleton and a penalty – for foot up in a scrum, of all things – in that spell of pressure.
Garbutt’s fierce charge, in a penalty set, got Leeds on the front-foot and Brad Dwyer barged over from acting-half for his first Rhinos try, converted by Watkins.
Widnes were reduced to 12 men early in the second half when Hep Cahill was yellow- carded for a foul on Myler, which led to a bout of pushing and shoving between both sides.
The home side were still a man short when they got back in front on 52 minutes. Hanbury made another break and though Golding got across to make a world-class tackle, Gilmore floated a kick to the other side of the field and Inu collected to cross for a try which he also converted, via a post. Mellor was denied a second by a brilliant last-ditch tackle from Jimmy Keinhorst and then Golding, Sutcliffe and Singleton combined to hold Inu up over the line on the next play.
Myler got over the line on the hour, but referee Robert Hicks awarded Widnes a penalty for obstruction and that was Leeds’ last chance to get back in it.
Widnes added two points with 15 minutes left through an Inu penalty goal after a ball steal on Jay Chapelhow and Danny Craven booted a drop goal nine minutes from time.
That left Rhinos needing to score twice, which wasn’t likely, but Widnes’ two late tries were cruel on Leeds.
Danny Walker crossed with five minutes left and two minutes from time Inu picked up after Mellor had lost possession and forced his way over, the centre completing the scoring with his third goal.
Rhinos were up against it from the moment their team was named. They were without Jack Walker (knee), Tom Briscoe (back), Ryan Hall (tonsillitis), Joel Moon (back/hamstring), Adam Cuthbertson (fractured hand), Carl Ablett (groin) and Stevie Ward (calf) from the team which started in Melbourne nine days earlier.
Golding started at full-back, Harry Newman and Ash Handley were on the wings and Walters came into the second-row.
They all made their first appearance of the season, as did substitutes Cameron Smith, who did not get on, Garbutt and Mikolaj Oledzki.
Jimmy Keinhorst stepped up off the bench to start in the centres, with Liam Sutcliffe moving to stand-off.
Jones-Buchanan was out of position at prop and second-row Delaney and loose-forward Jack Ormondroyd both started after being substitutes for the World Club Challenge.
Hall and Briscoe were late withdrawals leading to Newman and Smith being drafted into the squad despite having played for Leeds’ under-19s on Thursday night.
Twelve of Rhinos’ full-time squad were unavailable, including youngster Alex Sutcliffe who is recovering from a shoulder reconstruction.
More significantly, 10 from squad numbers one-21 did not feature. Other players still on the casualty list were Keith Galloway (Achilles), Anthony Mullally (finger), Brett Ferres (knee) and Nathaniel Peteru (biceps).
The final penalty count was 9-6 in Widnes’ favour (5-4 in the first half).