it would probably be stretching a point to describe the Challenge Cup holders and a team who have won six of the previous 11 Grand Finals as a surprise package, but Leeds Rhinos’ form so far this year is exceeding expectations.
Leeds recorded a sixth win in seven First Utility Super League matches when they ran in 28 unanswered points in the final 27 minutes against Catalans Dragons in Perpignan.
That was enough to take them above St Helens, who lost at Hull KR the previous evening, on points difference and Rhinos will go into the Easter period as the new league leaders.
Leeds finished sixth last year, their lowest position in the table since they were 10th out of 12 in the first summer campaign, in 1996.
Coach Brian McDermott’s team lost their final six matches in the league and play-offs and having made only one signing in the off-season, Australian Adam Cuthbertson, were widely expected to be off the pace this term.
Question-marks were raised about a veteran squad, which includes two 37-year-old props and four more players aged 32 or older and an alleged lack of replacements coming through, but the 38-22 victory at Stade Gilbert Brutus was as much a credit to Rhinos’ youngsters as it was their much-decorated older heads.
Rob Burrow, 32, made a huge impact as a replacement for hooker Paul Aiton, who had been having a fine game before limping off with a dead leg late in the first half. Another 32-year-old, Danny McGuire, scored an outstanding try and set an impressive lead as stand-in captain, with Kevin Sinfield again sidelined by a hamstring injury and Jamie Peacock, the oldest man in the squad, was a vital contributor in the rally which turned the game on its head.
But Leeds’ most eye-catching performances came from players who are putting their hand up to take over when the old guard hang up their boots. Liam Sutcliffe scored a try, which he also created and kicked five goals as the visitors’ stand-in, stand-off.
At 20 he is a long way short of being the finished article, but his effort in difficult circumstances against a strong French team underlined his credentials as a long-term replacement for Sinfield.
Cuthbertson has already effectively taken over the mantle from Kylie Leuluai, who turned 37 yesterday and missed the trip to France due to illness, but finding a new number 10 will be arguably Leeds’ most daunting challenge. They may well look abroad and have been strongly linked with New Zealand Warriors’ Super League-bound forward Sam Rapira, but Brad Singleton is emerging as a front-rower of vast potential.
He made his first start of the season against Catalans and played a big role in Leeds’ win. Singleton was one of the defenders, along with McGuire, Joel Moon and Carl Ablett, who tackled Jeff Lima into touch from the restart after the home team had gone 22-10 ahead. That halted Catalans’ momentum and led to a scrum near the French team’s line, from which Singleton showed great strength and determination to barge over for his fourth try in seven matches this season.
Stevie Ward had earlier scored Leeds’ second try, running a smart line from a pass by Zak Hardaker. He is 21 and burst on to the scene in 2012 before suffering a shoulder injury, halting the early progress which had seen him invited to train with the England squad.
Now fully fit and with a long pre-season under his belt, he has bulked up, played the full 80 minutes on Saturday and was McDermott’s choice of man of the match, for the second successive game. Though he can also play in the pivotal roles, Ward is an obvious candidate to fill the gap which will be left when six-time Grand Final winner Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who suffered a hamstring injury in the first half, decides to call it a day. Whether Leeds can maintain their early form remains to be seen, but given an equal share of possession they have enough firepower to score tries against any team. Ablett’s opening try, again off a pass by Hardaker, was cancelled out when Elliott Whitehead, the former Bradford forward who had a fine game for Catalans, went over and Scott Dureau kicked the first of his three goals.
Ward’s try gave Leeds a 10-6 interval lead, but errors and penalties allowed Catalans to add tries by Whitehead, Eloi Pelissier and Damien Cardace, which seemed to put them in total command.
Singleton’s touchdown revived Leeds and McGuire scored his 247th try for the club in the next set, finishing a fine sweeping move also involving Burrow, Ablett, Moon and Ryan Hall.
Leeds went ahead when Sutcliffe touched down from his own kick and, after Cuthbertson had a try ruled out, Burrow set up one for Watkins and Hardaker went over on the final play, after catching a short drop out, to end Catalans’ unbeaten home record and complete a fine comeback.
Catalans Dragons: Escare, Cardace, Pomeroy, Taia, Tonga, Bosc, Dureau, Casty, Henderson, Lima, Anderson, Whitehead, Baitieri. Substitutes: Elima, Pelissier, Garcia, Bousquet.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Handley, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, McGuire, Singleton, Aiton, Peacock, S. Ward, Ablett, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Burrow, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Achurch.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (RFL).