THIS game was supposed to be all about England star Danny McGuire’s return from a broken leg, just in time to fire Leeds Rhinos’ push to Old Trafford and keep alive hopes of finishing third.
The scrum-half did, typically, score, latching onto Kevin Sinfield’s grubber in the closing stages having encouragingly come through the entire 80 minutes unscathed.
However, it was another less-heralded player on the comeback trail that truly dug the champions out of a hole a little earlier and, crucially, helped avoid a second successive home loss.
After eight weeks out, Mitch Achurch was supposed to play for Hunslet Hawks against Featherstone Rovers tomorrow to ease his way back to fitness and maybe help their South Leeds neighbours avoid relegation into Championship One.
Instead, though, the rangy Australian forward – a relatively unknown signing from Penrith Panthers last winter – was a late addition to the Leeds bench last night after Rob Burrow pulled out with a back injury shortly before kick-off.
Achurch duly came on and, with Catalan leading a scrappy game 12-8, surged onto Liam Sutcliffe’s smart pass and through a gaping hole to score a vital try with just eight minutes remaining.
Sinfield converted, Leeds strengthening their hold on fourth place and the gutted French side – so close to finally winning their first match at Headingley –were finally subdued.
Meanwhile, with Hull FC’s Daniel Holdsworth slotting a dramatic late match-winning drop-goal over at Wigan, it now means Leeds head to the Warriors for their final regular round on Thursday in a winner-takes-all decider for third place.
But Leeds must improve. It is hard to believe but the first half last night was just like the Challenge Cup final between Hull and Wigan a week ago – containing mistake after mistake after mistake from both sides.
Kallum Watkins, more known for his attacking quality, was called into defensive mode early on, crucially getting back to tackle Thomas Bosc after Ian Henderson had burst through and then similarly tracking down a dangerously accelerating Scott Dureau.
However, the England centre then forced a rushed pass to Ben Jones-Bishop which ended up in touch and set the tone of the contest.
Dureau lost possession on the first tackle from a Catalan scrum, returning Leeds prop Ryan Bailey coughed up a pass from dummy-half on only the second, Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker was penalised when in possession for an act of petulance and on and on it went.
Hardaker strangely let one high kick dangerously bounce in front of him and, when the England player did return one, he lost the ball when trying to bump off Dureau.
Amid all the chaos there were some moments of class.
Australian centre Joel Moon, back after missing the last two Leeds games through injury, looked threatening every time he ran onto passes while Jamie Peacock made one barnstorming surge down the left flank which was only ended by a desperate Dureau ankle-tap.
Ryan Hall also came up with a clever play to score the only try of the half.
Moments earlier, he had tackled Damien Blanch into touch early in a set on halfway which somehow caused a melee that threatened to actually spill over into the South Stand.
It was the Catalan winger and Bailey who ended up yellow-carded and, so, Hall – realising his opposite man was off the field – showed great awareness soon after to dummy at acting half and slice down the vacant blindside to score his 16th try of the campaign from 20 metres out.
Sinfield improved the 26th-minute score but, given the general lack of finesse from both sides, it was no surprise when the captain opted to kick a penalty when Catalan were caught in an offside position after ex-Leeds player Brent Webb had caught Hardaker following Moon’s break.
After Leeds had unusually kicked out on the full for a third time in the game, Catalan finally found enough cohesion to usher Lopini Paea over off Dureau’s short delayed pass in the 46th minute
Bosc converted but Leeds were unlucky not to respond when a charging Brad Singleton was somehow held up between the posts.
Watkins’s error nearly saw Webb score but he got back to make up for it.
However, another Leeds mistake straight after that gifted Catalan more ball and this time Olivier Elima – one of five ex-Bradford players in the visitors’ side – shrugged off Ian Kirke to slide over.
Bosc’s kick made it 12-8 to the French side venturing into the final quarter and hopes of at last winning their first game here at the ninth attempt were raised.
Hardaker had to sprint back to haul down Elliott Whitehead after he had intercepted the full-back’s pass but referee Phil Bentham ruled the Leeds player had also interfered.
Fortunately for the hosts, Bosc was off-target with the relatively simple penalty and it was left to Achurch to make that telling contribution.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sutcliffe, McGuire; Singleton, Sinfield, Peacock, Ablett, Clarkson, Bailey. Substitutes: Foster, Achurch, Kirke, Leuluai.
Catalan Dragons: Webb; Blanch, Menzies, Duport, Bosc; Pryce, Dureau; Elima, Henderson, Bousquet, Casty, Whitehead, Mounis. Substitutes: Pelissier, Fakir, Paea, Garcia.
Referee: P Bentham (RFL).