It looked like they had blown it when Salford twice levelled from six points down, but in the 79th minute Salford were penalised for knocking the ball out of Richie Myler’s grasp and Liam Sutcliffe kept his nerve to land the penalty from about 30 metres out.
The hooter sounded before Salford, who had won their last five games, but were without star man Jackson Hastings, plus Junior Sa’u and former Leeds man Luke Burgess, could restart.
The 18-16 success was Leeds’ first win against a Betfred Super League rival – other than Widnes Vikings – since April and Rhinos should be safe if they win at Championship side Halifax next week.
It was another incredibly tense Qualifiers encounter, much more than any play-offs game, which looked like a clash between two teams struggling at the bottom of the table.
There was plenty of effort – and both sides defended frantically – but the overall standard was poor.
The game was on a knife edge throughout. Rhinos led 8-4 at half-time, having dominated the opening 30 minutes.
Salford scored in their only attack during that time, but defended well against a Leeds offense lacking a cutting edge.
The visitors had a spell on the front foot before the interval, but having been able to make the most of a mountain of possession on Salford’s line a long-range try out of the blue gave Leeds their narrow lead.
Leeds went six ahead twice in the second half, but Salford levelled both times, the second occasion with six minutes left, but – for once this year – fortune favoured Rhinos.
Rhinos turned down two points early on when Joey Lussick was penalised for interference on Dom Crosby, but Salford’s defence held out from the tap in front of the posts.
Sutcliffe went closest for Leeds, but was kept out by Kris Welham.
Last night was Rhinos’ 10th game since Brian McDermott was sacked and Kevin Sinfield returned to the club as director of rugby.
Remarkably, they have scored first in all of them. The opening try was a well-worked move, the in-form Tom Briscoe stepping over at the corner off Jack Walker’s excellent offload after Brad Singleton and Sutcliffe had handled.
Crosby made a powerful start and his strong run gave Leeds the field position. It took Salford 13 minutes to get into Leeds’ half, courtesy of their first penalty and they scored when Josh Wood and Robert Lui combined to put Niall Evalds over.
Neither try was converted and the deadlock wasn’t broken again until a couple of minutes before the break.
Leeds were awarded a flurry of penalties early on, but Salford’s defence has improved hugely since their 20-0 loss at Emerald Headingley on Easter Monday.
They had a stroke of luck when Brett Ferres knocked on before Richie Myler touched down, then – after Darrell Olpherts turned the ball straight back – Walker slipped when he appeared to be heading for the line.
That was the first of four successive sets on the visitors’ line. Salford were placed on a team warning in the 29th minute after being penalised for the sixth time and Singleton was held up over the line in the next set. Eventually Sutcliffe’s offload went to ground and Salford survived. They then received a penalty and at the end of that set Lui tried a drop goal attempt, which went wide.
Rhinos also defended well. The team warning had the desired effect on Salford and Leeds were heavily penalised for the rest of the game.
From six-one at that point, the count was six-three at half-time and finished 10-10.
One of Salford’s penalties in the opening half was against Leeds in possession.
From that, Greg Burke got over the line and was held up with Walker underneath him. That was an important contribution as Leeds scored out of the blue almost immediately.
Sutcliffe’s neat pass put Jimmy Keinhorst into a gap inside his own half and he just had the legs to hold off the chasers, though against Sutcliffe could not convert.
A Myler kick almost created a try at the start of the second half, but the ball was grounded by a defender in-goal and Keinhorst knocked-on following the drop-out.
Seven minutes into the half Walker was pulled up for a forward pass near Leeds’ line on the first tackle, then Rhinos penalised for dissent.
Salford took a tap and Lussick was held up over the line by Adam Cuthbertson. On the next play Ed Chamberlain crossed, but knocked on in Luke Briscoe’s tackle before he could get the ball down.
On 53 minutes Salford were penalised for interference on Cameron Smith and Sutcliffe kicked the penalty to open a six-point gap.
All season Leeds have looked vulnerable after they score. Sutcliffe sent a kick out on the full in the set from the restart and a couple of penalties and yellow card led to Salford drawing level.
Rhinos were reduced to 12 when Brett Ferres was sin-binned for alleged dangerous contact on Tyrone McCarthy.
From the penalty Burke crashed over and Chamberlain converted to square the scores with 20 minutes left.
Myler kept Rhinos level with a brilliant ball-and-all tackle to wrap Lui up on the last Seconds later a penalty carried Leeds upfield and Myler and Sutcliffe created an opportunity for Tom Briscoe who zipped over for his second try.
Sutcliffe landed a magnificent touchline goal, but Olpherts went over soon afterwards and Chamberlain converted from wide out to make it 16-16.
A knock-on by Walker almost cost Leeds, but Jansin Turgut and Craig Kopczak were held up over the line as Leeds scrambled for their lives.
Then Matt Parcell charged Lui’s drop goal attempt down and regathered, Salford were penalised and the crucial penalty came when Myler feinted to go for a one-pointer and attempted to hit a gap instead.
Cuthbertson’s return, in place of Josh Walters, was Rhinos’ only change from the win at Widnes five days earlier.
Ashton Golding, Anthony Mullally and Mikolaj Oledzki were not selected.
Players missing due to injury were Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall, Carl Ablett and Mitch Garbutt (all knee), Stevie Ward (ankle), Ash Handley (shoulder and foot) and Brett Delaney (fractured eye socket).
Sinfield said: “A win is a win, we would have lost that one eight weeks ago. Our defence has improved over the last couple of games, but we are not safe yet.”