AS SURE as night follows day, Leeds Rhinos backed up their important win over Hull Kingston Rovers five days earlier by going down to a 28-16 defeat at Salford Red Devils.
It was only Leeds’ fourth loss to Salford in the summer era, but they have now gone more than a year since winning back-to-back Betfred Super League games and last night’s result was no shock.
Rhinos have played worse this year, but it was a poor attacking performance and the usual frailties in defence were ruthlessly punished.
All five of Salford’s tries came from close to Leeds line and though they tackled well in spells in midfield, they didn’t cope when the home side got into their 20.
Salford’s 12-6 interval lead was a fair reflection of the first half.
There was little between the teams, but Salford made better use of the ball and were – other than one chance late on – clinical close to Rhinos’ line.
Leeds should have created more from four successive penalties – the count was four-two in their favour at the break and finished six-five to the visitors – but made some costly errors in good field position, though a try at the death kept them in the contest.
That should have given Leeds a platform to repeat their big win at AJ Bell Stadium three months ago, but Salford were dominant for 30 minutes after an early try in the second half, building a 28-6 lead and when Leeds finally got going it was too late.
Despite not being named in the initial 19-man squad, new signing Ava Seumanufagai came off the bench in the first half to make his debut just two days after arriving in the country.
It was a tough ask, but the big prop will benefit from his two spells and contributed some strong carries, though Rhinos’ pack was out-gunned by a physical Salford side.
This is the best Salford side for years – and they deserve more than last night’s pitiful 3,368 attendance – but Leeds will feel most, if not all, the hosts’ tries should have been prevented.
Salford opened the scoring after seven minutes when Robert Lui, who was outstanding throughout, kicked across field on the last and Lee Mossop was allowed to make the catch and crash over for a try which Krisnan Inu improved.
Kallum Watkins was passed fit after taking a bang to a knee against Huddersfield and the captain reacted quickly to drag down Josh Jones who burst up the middle in the next set.
Other than that the sides went set-for-set until the end of the first quarter, then Rhinos wasted one chance and Salford immediately countered to double their lead.
Kris Welham forced an error from Liam Sutcliffe following a scrum deep in Salford’s territory, Lui’s kick led to a drop-out at the end of the next set and from that Adam Walker crashed over from Joey Lussick’s pass and Inu tagged on the goal to make it 12-0.
Rhinos struggled to complete a set near Salford’s line in the first half, but did go close six minutes before the break when Ash Handley took Richie Myler’s kick, but the home defence ganged up to hold him up just short.
Salford’s one break from long-range was made by Jake Bibby, but Tui Lolohea – at full-back with Jack Walker having returned to the casualty list – pulled him down and then Harry Newman reacted quickly to keep Niall Evalds out from acting-half.
Rhinos halved the deficit 81 seconds before half-time. Darrell Olpherts spilled Richie Myler’s kick to concede a scrum and from that Mikolaj Oledzki used all his size to storm over for a well-taken try which Liam Sutcliffe, who reverted to stand-off, converted.
That would have sent Rhinos into the changing rooms in buoyant mood, but they made a poor start to the second half when they struggled to get a last-tackle kick away, were penalised for offside and conceded a soft – though very typical – try in the resulting set.
Newman shot out of the line to try and nail Inu, but that left a gap and Lussick ran through it for yet another touchdown against Leeds from acting-half.
Inu couldn’t add the extras, but Salford had the game in their pocket 15 minutes after the interval as they exploited two of Leeds’ weaknesses.
Rhinos struggle to defend penalties – this one was for a high tackle on Jackson Hastings – and all season they have looked likely to crack when the opposition get close to their line.
Lui looked to have been wrapped up, but he got an offload away to Evalds and the full-back sent Walker in for his second try. Inu’s third conversion opened a 16-point gap and Leeds never looked capable of pulling that back.
Any doubt there might have been was extinguished 17 minutes from time when Lui stepped through for a solo try which Inu converted to make it 28-6.
Newman has things to learn, particularly defensively, but he has got good skills and he underlined that with a fine finish, stepping past three defenders for an unconverted try – after Rhinos had managed to force a drop out – with 10 left.
Salford’s restart went out on the full and Leeds pulled another consolation try back following the penalty when Cameron Smith dabbed a nice kick over the line and Handley capped a good game by touching down unopposed, Sutcliffe adding the extras.
Owen Trout and James Donaldson were left out and there was no place for Wellington Albert who had been due to return from a head injury, but picked up a knock in the final training session.
Unexpectedly, Brad Dwyer – not included in the initial 19 after damaging a shoulder against Huddersfield – was included among the substitutes and did make a late impact.
Leeds were allowed to include Dwyer and Seumanufangai after Albert and Konrad Hurrell, who has now missed three games owing to a hamstring injury, were ruled out.
Nathaniel Peteru and Jamie Jones-Buchanan – who on Tuesday will celebrate 20 years since his debut – both returned, in the starting side, though the latter went off in the first half and was not reintroduced.
Richard Marshall, who left his post as Halifax coach last week, watched the game alongside Leeds’ director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
Marshall is a possible contender to fill Leeds’ assistant-coaching position left vacant when James Lowes switched codes to join Ealing Trailfinders last month.
Richard Agar has been filling in until a permanent appointment is made.