A COUPLE of classy moments lit up Carl Ablett’s testimonial game, but Leeds Rhinos made hard work of a 26-12 win over spirited visitors Bradford Bulls.
Rhinos trailed at the break and did not hit the front until deep into the third quarter. Three tries in six minutes – two of them outstanding efforts – ensured the win and the margin would have been greater but for some wayward goalkicking.
Zak Hardaker landed one of his four conversion attempts and Jordan Lilley and Ablett – right at the end – were also off-target.
It was a good hit-out, but clearly Rhinos have a lot of work to do with ball in hand. They were sloppy in the opening 40 and better after the interval.
Generally their defence was solid, all be it against Championship opposition. They were caught out a couple of times near their own line in the first half, but shut Bulls out after the break.
The big positive was a solid return – after seven months out due to knee ligament damage – by Liam Sutcliffe, who played roughly 40 minutes either side of half-time.
Tom Briscoe looked sharp and strong on the left wing and Brett Ferres, one of 10 Leeds substitutes, made a good contribution against the club where his career began 11 years ago.
Bulls had two opportunities in the opening 40 and made both of them count. Leeds wasted a series of chances, but carved out two tries – one from deep inside their own half.
Leeds actually got over the line three times, but one of their touchdowns was ruled out in bizarre circumstances.
On nine minutes Briscoe intercepted Danny Addy’s pass to Lee Gaskell and raced over from halfway.
It looked like a fair try, Briscoe tapping the ball in the air and catching it without anyone else getting a touch, but – on the advice of a touch judge – referee Gareth Hewer ruled it out for a supposed knock-on.
Bulls forced a goal line drop out in the set from the scrum, then won a penalty and the pressure paid off as Kris Welham chipped intelligently between the posts and ran through to touch down.
Addy’s conversion made it 6-0.
Rhinos’ first try came from a Bulls error, a forward pass, 20 metres out from the hosts’ line. Danny McGuire began and ended the move, spotting a gap on the blindside, dashing clear and playing a one-two with the supporting Briscoe.
Bulls went eight points ahead on 26 minutes, a quick one-two between Gaskell and try scorer Adam O’Brien catching Rhinos’ defence out close to the line.
Addy again added the extras, but the hosts cut the gap before the break when Briscoe crossed – after Ferres and Kallum Watkins had handled – and Hardaker landed an angled conversion.
Ferres, making his first appearance at Headingley following his transfer from Huddersfield Giants, was booed by Bradford’s fans when he came on midway though the first half.
Matty Blythe twice kept Bulls’ line intact in the third quarter, dragging Mitch Achurch down just short and then tackling Briscoe into touch as he dived over from Watkins’ pass. Rhinos finally got their noses in front 15 minutes into the second half and, after the poor fare earlier in the game, it was a scintillating try, beginning on one wing and ending at the other.
Briscoe’s strong run set them in motion and Watkins, Brad Singleton, McGuire and Ferres all handled before Ryan Hall got over by the flag.
Three minutes later, Achurch stretched across from a pass by Sutcliffe and moments later Burrow jinked out of acting-half inside his own territory, hit the afterburners and held off Oscar Thomas on a dazzling sprint to the line.
Coach Brian McDermott managed to use all his extended bench, and Ashton Golding caught the eye with a late cameo. He provided the pass which sent Beau Falloon over on the final play of the game.
Bulls had one chance in the second half, Adam Sidlow getting over the line but being held up by four defenders.
Referee Hewer is a rare visitor to Headingley, usually plying his trade in the lower divisions.
On today’s performance he would not look out of place in Super League. The penalty count finished 7-5 in the visitors’ favour (4-2 to Bulls in the first half).McDermott felt Rhinos got what they needed from the game.
He said: “It was a tough work out, good for us. It was important we didn’t try and pull our triggers too early, we had to earn the right to do some things.
“We went through a period when Bradford were more than a challenging team. Eventually we started to look a bit like it, but certainly the first 30 minutes of that game were extremely tough.”
Of Sutcliffe’s return, the coach added: “He didn’t look out of place.
“I don’t think we picked out too many fellas and thought ‘they need a lot more work’ – I thought we all had a good work out.
“We had a number of blokes a bit blowy to start with, but you’d expect that.”
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Galloway, Falloon, Cuthbertson, Delaney, Ablett, Singleton. Subs Sutcliffe, Garbutt, Keinhorst, Achurch, Walters, Handley, Golding, Baldwinson, Ferres.
Bradford Bulls: Thomas, Williams, Blythe, Welham, Caro, Ggaskell, Addy, Sidlow, O’Brien, Kavanagh, Olbison, Haggerty, Mellor. Subs Clare, Fleming, Pitts, Walter, Lauaki, Halafihi, Jacks, Ferguson, Walshaw, Ryan, Lumb.
Referee: Gareth Hewer (Whitehaven). Attendance: 5,896.