LEEDS Rhinos found the win they demanded of themselves last night but their scrappy performance will have done little to leave Melbourne Storm unduly concerned ahead of next week’s World Club Challenge.
After suffering a surprise loss at Castleford Tigers on Sunday, it was imperative the Super League champions secured a victory here before anything else.
They did so with Australian centre Joel Moon, playing against the club he left in controversial circumstances during the winter, scoring a brace of tries and, more surprisingly, grafting hooker Paul McShane doing just the same.
Kevin Sinfield extended his remarkable goal-kicking record, his seven strikes making it 36 consecutive kicks for the Leeds captain, but his error-strewn side were far from their best.
England international Zak Hardaker is also now a major doubt for Friday’s showdown with the NRL champions after the full-back departed with a worrying thumb injury last night.
Melbourne are due to travel north from their London training base today in readiness for that world title decider and when they watch the tape they will be encouraged.
Salford’s Super League record against Leeds is utterly pitiful and – even considering the hosts’ erratic display – that showed little sign of changing last night.
Rhinos have now won all but one of the clubs’ 32 meetings in the summer era.
Salford’s evening started badly when Jack Hughes – who endured a torrid time at full-back – spilled a steepling kick in front of his own sticks.
His side were let off the hook when Sinfield’s pass to Ryan Hall arrowed forward but then Ashley Gibson coughed up straight from the resulting scrum five metres from his own line gifting Stevie Ward the easiest of tries.
In fairness, they then applied some pressure as a succession of Leeds errors – Jimmy Keinhorst fumbling a simple grubber, Danny McGuire casually going high on Gibson – invited the visitors in.
It is equally fair to say, however, that Melbourne will be far more ruthless with any such gifted possession.
Instead, Brian McDermott’s side defended their line with ease and steadied to add their second try through Moon in the 18th minute as he latched on to McGuire’s stubbed kick.
When Sinfield and Hardaker linked to put Watkins over in the 25th minute it made it 18-0 and there was never ever doubting the result.
Salford briefly flickered just before and after half-time, makeshift winger Niall Evalds proving central to their momentary escapes from mediocrity.
First, after Jodie Broughton’s pace had seen Salford finally clear their own lines, he brilliantly claimed Marc Sneyd’s crossfield kick to feed ex-Rhino Gibson.
Sneyd converted and then, just three minutes into the second period, Evalds crucially plucked off McGuire’s pass before racing 95m to score himself.
Moon restored some order, though, with his second soon after when Jamie Jones-Buchanan palmed on McShane’s pass for Watkins to coolly send him racing over.
It was McShane, the burly hooker, who twisted over from dummy half after Richard Moore had barrelled close for Leeds to snuff out any further Salford resistance in the 52nd minute.
Watkins – shifted to full-back after Hardaker’s injury – then cruised into the line to put Carl Ablett over but he was denied by some desperate defence.
The impressive Ablett turned provider next only to see Sinfield, of all people, spurn yet another golden opportunity but McShane, perhaps after assessing the situation, kept it simple as he darted over for his second.
Gibson, though, added his own second late on to only underline again how Leeds must step up significantly for their next and far more significant fixture.
Sinfield capitalised on another embarrassing Salford error in the closing stages but McDermott has plenty to ponder.
Ward made his first Super League appearance since last October’s Grand Final having initially made his comeback from shoulder surgery in a couple of Under-19s games.
The teenager did enough to suggest he could warrant a place in next week’s 17, if anything for a fantastic hit on Jordan James.
Kylie Leuluai was another returning for the first time since Old Trafford and the Samoan prop got a couple of decent spells under his belt to prove his fitness after a wrist operation and confirm his spot against Melbourne.
The 34-year-old has enough in the bank to ensure he will play but – with Jamie Peacock, Brett Delaney and, possibly, Ryan Bailey – all to return on Friday, Mitch Achurch will probably be sweating this week and Richard Moore did not quite assert himself enough last night in a rare chance to warrant a surprise inclusion.
However, he does seem further along the pecking order than Darrell Griffin, the ex-Huddersfield and England prop who featured in the Manly win 12 months ago and in the Grand Final yet has not played a single minute in 2013.
Leeds, meanwhile, have surprisingly recalled young prop Brad Singleton from his loan spell at Wakefield Trinity to send him to Hunslet Hawks on a dual-registration deal.
He will play for them against Dewsbury Rams tomorrow.
Leeds: Hardaker; Keinhorst, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Jones-Buchanan, Ward, Clarkson, Ablett. Substitutes: Moore, Kirke, McShane, Achurch.
Salford: Murphy; Evalds, Gibson, Williams, Broughton; McGoldrick, Sneyd; Jewitt, Howarth, McPherson, Ashurst, Dixon, Neal. Substitutes: Owen, Boyle, Gledhill, James.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).