leeds Rhinos invested a great deal in winning the Challenge Cup last year and on the evidence of their sixth-round victory over Huddersfield Giants, they aren’t prepared to give up the trophy easily.
Huddersfield were the last team to beat Leeds in a Challenge Cup tie, winning a fifth-round match 24-8 on their own ground two years ago and they will have gone into Saturday’s game in confident mood.
The visitors were in the better form, unbeaten in four games while Leeds had failed to win in their previous three. The teams drew 24-24 at John Smith’s Stadium just two weeks earlier and Huddersfield proved they can finish strongly against Leeds by hitting back from 22-6 behind.
But that was a Leeds team without captain Kevin Sinfield and winger Ryan Hall, who both returned for the Challenge Cup tie and stamped an indelible mark on the contest.
Though he denied it following the game, Sinfield had a point to prove after being among the substitutes for his two previous appearances and left out altogether of Rhinos’ last couple of matches.
He was recalled at the expense of 20-year-old stand-off Liam Sutcliffe and showed Leeds exactly what they have been missing. It was a vintage Sinfield display; he guided his team around the park, kicked intelligently and regularly turned four points into six, landing eight goals from nine attempts.
Those 16 points took him to a career tally of 4,046, just four behind Gus Risman, who is the third highest scorer in rugby league’s 120-year history. More importantly for Sinfield, he proved Leeds are a more effective team with him in their starting 13.
Sinfield was named man of the match by BBC television pundit Jonathan Davies afterwards, but Hall’s return was just as significant.
He had been out of action since Easter Monday, due to a fractured wrist, but showed no signs of ring rust in a two-try display. Importantly, Hall’s comeback allowed Kallum Watkins to move from wing to centre, where he is more effective.
Sinfield was partnered at half-back by another six-time Grand Final winner Danny McGuire. When he scored the Rhinos’ first try of the second half it took him to 1,001 points and he became only the 13th player to reach four figures for Leeds.
Huddersfield, beaten just once in their previous nine meetings with Leeds, were never really in the game, although it might have been a different story had they been able to take advantage of some early pressure, after Adam Cuthbertson had a touchdown ruled out for Leeds.
Giants pressed the home line, but Scott Grix’s offload on the final tackle was snapped up by Watkins and he raced away to open the scoring, despite Danny Brough’s gallant attempt to chase him down.
Sinfield’s step and smart pass set up another touchdown for the centre, before Zak Hardaker’s pass was finished by Hall and then Paul Aiton scored after Leroy Cudjoe had hacked a kick against a post.
That made it 22-0 after 20 minutes and Huddersfield did well to stem the tide, pulling an unconverted try back before half-time through Kyle Wood.
Their hopes of another fightback were dashed when McGuire scored after some impressive ball movement on 50 minutes, Sinfield kicked a penalty and Cuthbertson capped a fine display with a try from Burrow’s no-look pass. Hall scored his second in the set from the re-start, but Brough, quiet up until then, was able to carve out consolation tries for Brett Ferres, who had a strong game on his return from an ankle injury and Grix, both of which he converted.
The stand-off also provided the pass for the final try, but it went to Leeds’s Carl Ablett, who galloped over from halfway to cap an eye-catching display by the league leaders. There was a change at half-time when referee Phil Bentham withdrew due to a hamstring injury. He was replaced by touch judge Jonathan Roberts.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Handley, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Cuthbertson, Aiton, Peacock, S Ward, Ablett, Delaney. Substitutes: Walters, Achurch, Singleton, Burrow
Huddersfield Giants: Grix, McGillvary, Cudjoe, Wardle, Murphy, Brough, Wood, Crabtree, Robinson, Huby, Ferres, Hughes, Ta’ai. Substitutes: Lawrence, Kopczak, Mullally, Ellis.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington) replaced by J Roberts (Batley).