IT WAS the St Valentine’s Day massacre.
Sunday, February 14 was more like Friday the 13th as Leeds Rhinos suffered a defeat at Widnes Vikings which could only be described as disastrous.
Not only were they beaten 56-12, suffering a second successive reverse at the start of the season, but they also lost three players with what looked to be serious ankle injuries.
It was the nightmare scenario for Rhinos, a week out from their World Club Challenge showdown with North Queensland Cowboys.
That looks a very tall order for the Super League champions, who now have seven of their 26-man squad on the casualty list.
Leeds trailed 16-0 when Tom Briscoe, the first of the casualties, went off, so the injuries weren’t an excuse for the loss, but they played a part in the scale of it.
It was terrible luck for Briscoe, who suffered a serious shoulder injury in last year’s Super League round three and has been in fine form since returning.
By half-time, when the champions trailed 28-6, they were down to 14 fit players with Carl Ablett and Ashton Golding also off hurt, which meant their forwards had to do longer minutes than expected.
Rhinos showed some spark in the moments either side of half-time, but were outclassed from start to finish by a good Widnes side.
Even considering the injuries, it was a very poor Rhinos performance, though take nothing away from Widnes, who defended magnificently, played at a high tempo and were clinical with ball in hand.
It was Rhinos’ heaviest defeat since a 50-8 drubbing at home to Wigan in 2012 and it’s tough to remember a worse afternoon for them, certainly in the past decade.
Even before the injuries struck they lacked direction on attack. There were too many errors and unnecessary off-loads and Rhinos could not deal with Widnes’ line speed.
Honourable exceptions were Zak Hardaker, outstanding in a lost cause and Brett Ferres, who battled throughout.
Leeds went into the game with a strong side, despite missing four players. With Danny McGuire beginning his two-month injury lay-off Jordan Lilley made only his sixth senior appearance – and his second start – in the halves.
Liam Sutcliffe was alongside him, so Rhinos fielded a half-back partnership with a combined age of 40.
Lilley tried his best in very tough circumstances, but Sutcliffe was hobbling in the second half and is clearly still feeling his way back after his knee reconstruction late year.
Golding, who was born on the same day as Lilley and played with him at the Stanningley amateur club, was drafted in on the bench, for his fifth Super League game, though it didn’t last long.
They were the only changes to the team which lost against Warrington in round one. Beau Falloon is still sidelined by a broken toe and Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Stevie Ward are on the long-term casualty list.
Rhinos made a dismal start and that, rather than the injuries, was the cause of their defeat.
Widnes went ahead after four minutes in the set from their first penalty. Stefan Marsh was brought into their team, replacing Patrick Ah Van and he went over at the corner after the impressive Charly Runciman off-loaded out of Kallum Watkins’ tackle.
That came following an error by Adam Cuthbertson and a penalty for laying on.
Hardaker did well to keep Joe Mellor out, but Watkins knocked on near his own line and the next time Leeds had possession they were 16-0 adrift. Widnes got the ball from a scrum 10 metres out, after Briscoe touched Kevin Brown’s long pass before Marsh spilled it into touch.
Setaimata Sa crossed from Chris Bridge’s pass, Leeds were penalised from the restart and on the resulting attack Sa’s off-load was finished at the corner by Corey Thompson. Rhys Hanbury converted the first two – going on to land eight goals in all – and Leeds were 16-0 down after 13 minutes.
The next few minutes illustrated the problems Leeds have at the moment.
They got the ball from a scrum close to Widnes’ line, following a weaving run by Briscoe and four successive penalties, but couldn’t find a way through Widnes’ excellent defence.
Then Briscoe was hurt and seconds later brilliant handling by Bridge, Brown and Aaron Heremaia ended with Lloyd White crossing between the posts for a try which Hanbury converted.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Ablett was hurt in back play and had to be helped from the field.
Hardaker moved to the right-wing, with Jimmy Keinhorst coming off the bench as his centre. Watkins went into the second-row and Golding was at full-back.
But not for long. Nine minutes after he came on, Golding was off again. He was hurt in-goal and hobbled off in obvious pain as Runciman was crossing for the hosts’ fifth try, which Hanbury converted for 28-0. In the latest reshuffle, Hardaker returned to full-back, Watkins went on to the right-wing and Brett Delaney into the centre, with Keinhorst in the pack.
In the final moments of the half Widnes were placed on a team warning after three more penalties on their own line.
It looked like the hosts would hold out, but as the hooter sounded Watkins got over at the corner from Sutcliffe’s pass – after his one-two with Brett Ferres.
Lilley took kicking duties and landed a tremendous touchline goal.
Eight minutes after the break, Brown took a quick tap, something Leeds were prevented from doing twice in the game, Mellor dashed clear and Thompson scored at the corner.
In the next set Sa sent Mellor over and two conversions made it 40-6. Ryan Hall did get over the line for Leeds, but referee Stokes reckoned he had knocked on.
Thompson completed his hat-trick and Connor Farrell’s try brought up the half-century, before Marsh got over for his second with 10 to go.
The score in both halves was 28-6 , with Leeds scoring last. Four minutes from the end Brett Delaney and Joel Moon combined to put Burrow into space, Lilley adding the extras.
Leeds won the penalty count in both halves. They received eight to Widnes’ two in the first half and it finished 11-7.