DURING THE first Super League season, 23 years ago, then-Leeds coach Dean Bell kept a bottle of Champagne on ice which he promised himself he’d crack open when his team secured back-to-back victories. It remained undrunk all year.
The bubbly was not flowing after last night’s 10-0 derby victory at Wakefield Trinity, but back-to-back Super League victories for the first time since the start of April last year was a significant step forward.
Leeds backed up their Magic Weekend success against London Broncos with a hard-fought win which inflicted a fourth successive defeat, in league and Cup, on an out-of-sorts Trinity.
Two things Leeds have been poor at this year are defence and game-management. Last night they were excellent in both departments.
Rhinos produced their best defensive stint of the season in the opening 40 minutes.
It was a strong effort all-round, but Ava Seumanufagai had his best game for the club and there were notable contributions from Tui Lolohea, Harry Newman, Brad Dwyer, Kallum Watkins and Trent Merrin.Peter Smith
It was the third time they have kept a first-half clean sheet, but - unlike the home games against Huddersfield Giants and Hull KR - Wakefield put Leeds under pressure.
The hosts forced four drop-outs, three of them in succession in the opening moments, but the try which seemed inevitable did not come.
Wakefield didn’t ask enough questions, but Rhinos muscled up well, getting several players into the tackle and knocking Trinity back.
In the second half Trinity created more opportunities out wide and would have taken them if they had been in better form, but Rhinos’ defence forced some errors and seemed to take some of the heart out of Wakefield.
Still missing the injured Dave Fifita - among many others - Wakefield’s forwards could not get on top of a strong Leeds pack.
Ryan Hampshire battled hard for the home team and there was another impressive effort from youngster Jack Croft - particularly one try-saving tackle - but Leeds were deserved victors.
It was a strong effort all-round, but Ava Seumanufagai had his best game for the club and there were notable contributions from Tui Lolohea, Harry Newman, Brad Dwyer, Kallum Watkins and Trent Merrin.
Last night avenged two earlier defeats by Trinity this season and Rhinos are now four points clear of bottom club London, who play leaders St Helens tomorrow.
Most importantly, a towering psychological barrier has been climbed.
Both teams got over their opponents’ line in the first half, but there was just one clean break, made up the middle by Rhinos’ Tom Briscoe.
Other than that it was a scrappy slog marred by errors and penalties and Leeds’ game management was much better than it has been previously.
A stunning interception try by Lolohea increased Leeds’ advantage in the third quarter and that ultimately proved to be the only touchdown of the game, though both teams went close.
Leeds had lost on goal kicks on the same ground at Easter, but that was a lesson learned and six of their points came through penalties.
The first half began with an assault on Rhinos’ line after Brad Singleton was penalised for interference in Trinity’s first set.
Tyler Randell was held up over the whitewash from acting-half - by Seumanufagai - and Wakefield then forced three successive goal line drop outs - all from different kickers, Craig Kopczak, Danny Brough and Hampshire.
Another penalty kept the pressure on, but then Reece Lyne was shoved into touch after Ash Handley knocked down a pass to Trinity’s right.
Rhinos had their only real try-scoring opportunity when Dwyer’s kick hit a post, but Seumanufagai - who was following up - knocked on.
With Matt Parcell suspended, Dwyer played the first hour and when he was given a breather Cameron Smith came off the bench to fill in.
Trinity knocked on clearing their lines and Leeds took the two when Croft and Matty Ashurst were penalised for interference on Newman.
The lead was doubled in similar fashion 12 minutes before the break, Jordan Crowther being the guilty party this time and Adam Cuthbertson - recalled by Leeds in place of the injured Nathaniel Peteru - the victim.Rhinos had been gifted the field position by Brough, who hurled a long pass into touch deep inside Wakefield’s half.
Four minutes later, Brett Ferres - returning from a knee injury - lost possession, then Brough had a shot at goal when Newman was penalised for interference, but the kick was off-target.
Rhinos knocked-on three times in the final three minutes of the half, but managed to hold out, Ferres jarring the ball loose from James Batchelor, back in Trinity’s side after injury, on the final play.
Eighteen-year-old centre Croft retained his place at left-centre for Trinity to make his Super League debut.
Junior Sa’u, who was Cup-tied last week, came in on the wing.
Twelve minutes after the break he was involved in a near-miss for the hosts, turning the ball inside to Hampshire who couldn’t gather it just short of the line.
The opening try, when it eventually came, was remarkable. It seemed Wakefield were going to score it when Kelepi Tanginoa cut into space from close to his own line.
He had Hampshire in support on his left shoulder, but Lolohea intercepted the pass and with everyone in the stadium looking one way, he sped the other, showing unexpected pace to cover 70 metres - the final five on his front after, cleverly, hitting the deck short of the line.
Sutcliffe’s kick from the left touchline hit a post and bounced out.
Lolohea returned at full-back for Leeds in place of Jack Walker, who was ruled out with his recurring hamstring problem after making a comeback against London.
Soon afterwards a brilliant tackle by Croft prevented a second Rhinos try. Watkins - playing in the second-row following centre Konrad Hurrell’s return from injury - got over off terrific work by Newman, but the teenager prevented him getting the ball down.
At the start of the final quarter Merrin and James Donaldson held Kopczak up over the line, then Ben Jones-Bishop crossed, but Hurrell’s tackle had forced him to put a leg into touch.
Referee Robert Hicks said no try and video assistant Chris Kendall confirmed the decision, which was good work by the officials.
That was the crucial moment. Soon after that, with 14 left, Newman intercepted almost on his own line and though the defence did well to run him down, Crowther was penalised for interference and Sutcliffe kicked the goal from long-range to make it 10-0.
The penalty count was five-five at half-time and finished eight-seven in Rhinos’ favour. The last of those was against Jones-Bishop in possession two minutes from time, but Sutcliffe pushed his kick off target.