AT THE end of a week where they sold Zak Hardaker to Castleford Tigers, Leeds Rhinos showed they have more than one option as the England full-back’s long-term replacement.
Ashton Golding, of course, is rightly seen as the heir apparent, the talented 20-year-old recently signing a new five-year deal.
17-year-old Jack Walker was superb as defiant Leeds, despite missing six regulars, held out against improving St Helens in a tense finish at Headingley.The YP’s Dave Craven
But he was missing with an injured hamstring for a third time game running last night and, after trying Liam Sutcliffe there, head coach Brian McDermott this time went with Jack Walker in the No 1 role.
The 17-year-old was superb as defiant Leeds, despite missing six regulars, held out against improving St Helens in a tense finish at Headingley.
It was an ideal response after last Friday’s disappointing loss against Castleford at the same ground and it takes then back up to second, at least for 24 hours.
Joel Moon, in the absence of banned captain Danny McGuire and injured Rob Burrow, was inspirational in the halves, scoring his 19th try of the season and setting up Ryan Hall, too.
He was well supported by Jordan Lilley, the 20-year-old recalled from a loan spell at Bradford Bulls and whose goal-kicking proved crucial.
But Walker, who scored three tries in his three other games this year, stood out.
He was excellent under the high ball, refusing to yield under a torrent of kicks aimed at him.
Furthermore, the diminutive teenager came up with two crucial first-half defensive plays, producing a try-saving tackle to deny the excellent Ryan Morgan and then, with an old-fashioned ankle-tap, stopping James Roby just as the England hooker looked likely to arc past him.
On a night where depleted Leeds generally struggled for creativity, the former Oulton Raiders junior – he does not turn 18 until August – also chimed in with some of the hosts’ best attacking moments, not least with a jinking run shortly before Stevie Ward’s 43rd minute try that edged them ahead 12-4.
Admittedly, Saints, who have improved markedly since Justin Holbrook took charge in May, then took control with two tries in six minutes.
Firstly, Tommy Makinson benefitted after Ash Handley failed to take control of Roby’s high kick under pressure from the dangerous Dominique Peyroux.
Next, Roby went over himself as Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook produced a fine offload close to the line having run hard onto Theo Fages’s inside pass.
Makinson converted both and suddenly Leeds were playing catch-up.
However, when Saints captain Jon Wilkin was – perhaps harshly – yellow carded for an alleged 62nd-minute crusher tackle on Mitch Garbutt, the hosts crucially made the most of the extra man two minutes later.
Lilley, making his first Super League start since last September, chipped a deft kick that Tom Briscoe did well to palm down for Kallum Watkins to score.
Lilley held his nerve to slot the conversion and regain Leeds’s lead, no easy task given he had hit a post with a simple attempt to improve Moon’s opening try in the 18th minute.
That put Leeds back in front and Moon – Rhinos’ main threat with his unpredictable running from half-back – then sent England winger Hall, playing at centre, charging over on his 250th Super League appearance.
Lilley, once more, made sure with a fine conversion and, though Saints forced over via Alex Walmsley in the 78th minute, they could not create a breathtaking finish as they had done the previous week to beat Salford Red Devils.
Back then, Matty Smith slotted a remarkable drop goal in the final second to cap a stunning late comeback.
However, here the former England scrum-half was off injured inside the opening six minutes after Wilkin accidentally inflicted a nasty eye wound which saw the bloodied played finish up in hospital last night.
It did not deter them, initially, though, as Peyroux stepped past Moon and swatted Carl Ablett side to break from his own half and send in Adam Swift for the game’s opening try.
But Moon responded with his effort as he left Kyle Amor flapping and, though Lilley missed that goal, he slotted a penalty for a 6-4 interval lead.
Leeds, missing Brett Ferres and Brett Delaney to injury, too, and the suspended Jamie Jones-Buchanan, could easily have faded in the second period.
Their selection problems had already escalated when Sutcliffe – who found himself on the wing – pulled a hamstring following a rare break from the hosts in the first half.
But Leeds showed great determination and grit to stay competitive, Anthony Mullally and Keith Galloway setting the example up front.
And, though Sutcliffe will be doubtful for next Sunday’s game at Salford, with Walker also in such fine form, Leeds clearly are building nicely towards the Super 8s and potentially securing a semi-final place.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker; Briscoe, Watkins, Sutcliffe, Hall; Moon, Lilley; Galloway, Parcell, Singleton, Ablett, Ward, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Garbutt, Mullally, Ormondroyd, Handley.
St Helens: Lomax; Swift, Makinson, Morgan, Grace; Fages, Swift; Thompson, Roby, Amor, Taia, Wilkin, Knowles. Substitutes: Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Peyroux.
Referee: J Child (Dewsbury).