GARETH Ellis’s much-hyped return to Super League lasted all of a few minutes warm-up, leaving it to his former club Leeds Rhinos to begin their title defence in all too predictable fashion.
Hull’s marquee signing, back from a four-year stint in the NRL, was hoping to start in victorious style last night at the club where he won two Grand Finals before heading to Australia.
But the England second-row injured an ankle soon after stepping out for Hull’s pre-match practice, the demoralised captain being replaced by Richard Whiting just five minutes before kick-off.
Even if Ellis had been fit, however, it is unlikely he would have been able to do anything to prevent Leeds’s charge as they overcame a bitty first period to run away with an emphatic victory in the final quarter.
It was no surprise. For all Leeds have become masters of finishing a season in style, they also have an impressive record when it comes to kicking off.
They had not lost an opening Super League fixture in 12 years since Wakefield shocked Dean Lance’s side in 2000.
Head coach Brian McDermott, who could be in his job for as long as that period if not more after his ‘timeless’ contract was announced on the morning of the game, could eventually watch on at ease as captain Kevin Sinfield took firm control showing the sort of direction Hull are so clearly still lacking.
The only down side for the West Yorkshire club was a first-half injury to debutant Joe Vickery who departed with a foot injury.
Hull fielded six new signings while Brett Seymour – so derided for much of last season – won the race for the much-disputed scrum-half role ahead of Richard Horne.
He did little to enhance his claims for a regular role last night though, coughing the ball up three times in the opening quarter and regularly being found out defensively by Leeds loose forward Carl Ablett.
Fortunately, Daniel Holdsworth was a far more steadying influence on his debut, though it is hard to see him alone turning Hull into champion material.
It was his smart short pass that gave Joe Arundel just enough space to bounce the ball out to Joe Arundel for the England Knight – on debut after switching from Castleford – to cross in the 31st minute. Holdsworth duly converted from wide out to level a game Leeds had, up to that point, largely dominated.
However, for all the hosts’ verve and willingness to play expansive football, they failed to garner much reward.
Sinfield went over for a fortuitous try in the 16th minute when, between them, Ben Galea and Shannon McDonnell both dallied to make a hash of Danny McGuire’s grubber.
The Rhinos captain looked genuinely embarrassed and, admittedly, it was hardly a fitting way for the Golden Boot winner to go past Leeds legend Lewis Jones to become the eighth highest points scorer in the game’s history as he duly did with the conversion.
But it was one of those surreal evenings at Headingley; even the world’s greatest winger Ryan Hall, of all people, spilled a gift of a pass from McGuire to waste one opportunity and the half ended with what resembled yet another advert for Six Nations rugby as first Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker and then Jason Crookes kicked downfield to each other trying to fashion a score.
And then there was the new garish pink and blue check uniform for the match officials...
However, Leeds, at least, discovered their clarity after the break with debutant Joel Moon’s 57th minute try proving decisive.
Hull were fuming for the manner in which they conceded it having been gifted the ball on halfway by their opponents only to then see Galea fumble on the first tackle.
From there, Sinfield’s long pass out of dummy half saw Exiles centre Moon collect and, despite a slip, twist past McDonnell for his first try for the club and Leeds simply never looked back.
Soon after, Jamie Peacock was given sight of the line by Sinfield’s slip pass in front of the posts and, as Hull’s defence disintegrated, the veteran prop showed great dexterity for a 35-year-old to step through McDonnell’s poor attempt.
Sinfield added the extras and then, after McGuire had raced clear again, Leeds were over once more on 65 minutes.
This time it was McGuire’s subtle pass which put Chris Clarkson over all too easily before McGuire got a deserved score himself from another perfectly-timed Sinfield assist.
With jaded Hull now falling off tackles regularly, Hall made up for that earlier gaffe by scoring a typically thrilling 50m try, Sinfield maintaining his 100 per cent record with the boot.
Leeds: Hardaker; Vickery, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Bailey, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Ablett. Substitutes: Clarkson, Kirke, McShane, Achurch.
Hull FC: McDonnell; Crookes, Arundel, Yeaman, Briscoe; Holdsworth, Seymour; Pitts, Houghton, Lynch, Whiting, Galea, Westerman. Substitutes: Green, Johnson, O’Meley, Heremaia.
Referee: Steve Ganson (St Helens)