Winger Ash Handley scored his second hat-trick of the season against reigning Super League champions St Helens as Leeds completed the double with a ruthless victory to go three points clear of them with just three games left before the start of the Super 8s.
The 19-year-old Handley, who scored three tries in the Rhinos’ 41-16 win at Langtree Park in April, repeated the feat as the table-toppers ran in eight tries to three, including one for veteran prop Kylie Leuluai on his 250th appearance, to punish an error-ridden performance by the visitors.
Leeds gave a debut to prop Mitch Garbutt, less than a week after his arrival from Australia, but it was the familiar faces of Leuluai and Jamie Peacock who laid the platform with a series of powerful runs that ripped the heart out of the Saints defence while loose forward Carl Ablett was another class act for the Yorkshiremen.
A fumble at the kick-off by St Helens prop Kyle Amor set the tone for the visitors, who were all fingers and thumbs for most of the first half and the game was effectively over as a contest inside 14 minutes when the Rhinos led 18-0 much to the delight of a season’s best attendance of 18,514 at Headingley.
Hooker Paul Aiton set the ball rolling, intercepting a pass from St Helens full-back Mark Percival to turn defence into attack and create the position for Ablett to get centre Kallum Watkins in for the first try.
Leeds lost in-form second rower Stevie Ward at that point with a serious-looking ankle injury but they punished another handling error, this time from winger Matty Dawson, to score their second try, Leuluai taking Aiton’s reverse pass to crash through the Saints defence.
More rampaging runs from Leuluai and Peacock then softened up the visitors defence for Danny McGuire to get left winger Ryan Hall over at the corner.
Kevin Sinfield kicked all three conversions to make it 18-0 and it could have been much worse for the shell-shocked champions who could do little right.
Leeds second rower Jimmy Keinhorst dropped the ball over the line after pouncing on a wicked bounce from Zak Hardaker’s attacking kick while Hall twice fumbled as he eyed the corner and the Rhinos had to settle for solitary try in the second quarter from Handley.
St Helens rarely kept hold of the ball long enough to put the Leeds defence under pressure and when they finally managed a breakthrough, hooker James Roby’s 25th-minute touchdown was disallowed for a knock-on.
A half-time pep talk from coach Keiron Cunningham looked to have had the desired effect for Saints, who pulled a try back within three minutes of the re-start when centre Matty Fleming worked the ball back from Luke Walsh’s kick for loose forward Josh Jones to touch down.
Percival added the conversion and Leeds were reduced to 12 men on 49 minutes when Hardaker, who had signed a new four-year contract earlier in the day, was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Travis Burns.
Undeterred, the Rhinos extended their lead when Ablett forced his way over wide out for a solo try before Handley finished off a classic break by Watkins to score his second.
Saints’ late rally brought them consolation tries for centre Jordan Turner and Amor but Leeds finished in total command, with Rob Burrow and Sinfield combining to get Handley over for his hat-trick and Hall romping in for his second.
Sinfield then wrapped up the scoring with a last-minute penalty, taking his goal tally to seven from nine attempts.
“It was a decent contest, but we nailed our chances early,” said Leeds coach Brian McDermott.
“If nailing the chances that are presented to you is a definition (of a good performance) I would go with that.
“I don’t think we were brilliant in the first half, but we scored 22 points and that put us in a dominant position.”
McDermott also hailed Rhinos’ “commitment to defence” when they were reduced to 12 players with Hardaker in the sin-bin.
“We have got some strike, but you have got to have a foundation of defence,” he said.
McDermott singled out Carl Ablett, Brett Delaney and Jimmy Keinhorst for special praise and was also happy with props Kylie Leuluai, Jamie Peacock, Adam Cuthbertson and Aussie signing Mitch Garbutt, who he described as “solid”.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Handley, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Aiton, Peacock, Keinhorst, S. Ward, Ablett. Substitutes: Burrow, Delaney, Cuthbertson, Garbutt.
St Helens: Percival, Dawson, Fleming, Turner, Swift, Burns, Walsh, Amor, Roby, Masoe, Wilkin, Greenwood, Jones. Substitutes: Walmsley, Flanagan, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Savelio.
Referee: R Silverwood (RFL).