SOMETIMES teams just have to win doggedly to get anywhere near where they want to be going.
Leeds Rhinos did just that last night, producing a performance that lacked any real finesse but offered plenty of guts and determination. They needed it all.
If Brian McDermott’s side continue on to Old Trafford in the autumn, and secure a seventh Super League title, they may well look back at this hard-fought victory at an in-form Salford Red Devils as a pivotal moment.
Missing their leader Kevin Sinfield, as he started a two-game ban for that uncharacteristic head-butt of Castleford Tigers’ Luke Dorn last week, they initially seemed well set to push on without him.
Leeds, level 12-12 at the break, looked to have moved into full control with tries from Carl Ablett and Stevie Ward, Zak Hardaker converting the former, early in the second period.
But, once the inspired Jordan Walne powered through some feeble defence beneath their own posts for Josh Griffin to convert and make it 22-18 after 57 minutes, the visitors came under some intense pressure and became increasingly ragged.
Ward, who had shown real class dummying over for his try moments after coming on, fumbled twice under heavy tackles, Hardaker – kicking in Sinfield’s absence – missed a simple 40m penalty to settle nerves, while Walne and the excellent ex-Batley Bulldogs winger Greg Johnson both made searing breaks.
Each time Leeds rallied especially so when a marauding Junior Sa’u was forced into an error as he powered to the line yet, with Rangi Chase probing constantly, the danger was constant.
Salford, so dire earlier in the season, have been revived under Iestyn Harris, who captained Leeds to their last Challenge Cup win in 1999, and they came so close to delivering a fourth successive win that would have breathed life into their hopes of reaching the play-offs.
At the end, though, it was his former side who clung on, Tom Briscoe defusing Chase’s latest teasing grubber and then McDermott’s breathless side chasing down Salford relentlessly as the home side tried everything to snatch it after the hooter.
Leeds move second – at least until Wigan’s game at Bradford tomorrow – remaining two points behind leaders St Helens.
With England captain Sinfield sat in the stands, Leeds rolled back the years to start with Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow as their half-back pairing.
Initially, it was like the duo –who began together in the Headingley academy more than 15 years ago – had never been parted as they combined to constantly find Hardaker and Kallum Watkins down their right edge.
But Leeds had their problems. It was all square at the break after Salford – with Kiwi superstar Kevin Locke making his home debut – scored seconds before the interval.
Ryan Hall had come up with an uncharacteristic error in failing to deal with a kick and, from there, it was his former England colleague Chase who delayed brilliantly before stabbing in a kick for Theo Fages to score.
Griffin slotted his second conversion and it was the least Salford – physical in defence and willing in attack – had deserved.
Fages had had an effort ruled out not long before for a marginally forward pass from Steve Rapira after Locke had picked off an awful Joel Moon pass and raced 50m downfield, Hardaker finally quelling the original danger.
It was hard to define Leeds’ own play; when they went wide, consistently, to Watkins via hardaker they were constantly threatening.
Indeed, the England centre gave Mason Caton-Brown, the talented but raw youngster recently signed from London Broncos, a torrid time defensively.
Yet, through the middle, the visitors were undone by sloppy mistakes, often fumbling at the play-the-ball, in contact or with needless off-loads, and that thwarted their progress.
They had responded well to Salford’s 13th-minute opener, when Sa’u dived onto Locke’s neat grubber.
Hardaker latched onto a similar kick from McGuire seven minutes later, converting his own score, and then Leeds contrived to score once again in the very next set.
It was a wonderful try, created by Paul Aiton’s initial arcing run out of dummy-half deep in his own half, continued by Watkins who slipped Briscoe away and then rounded off by the centre back on the inside.
Hardaker improved and Locke sailed the restart dead, but there was no third successive try and Salford steadied.
But Ablett gave Leeds just the start they wanted in the second period.
Niall Evalds, who replaced Locke after he limped off, failed to deal with a hanging kick and from that possession the England second-row twisted over although he had no right to given the numbers in Salford’s defence close to their line.
Hardaker added his third conversion and then Ward scored that stylish effort in the 53rd minute just moments after coming on.
Jamie Peacock, who gave another typically rugged display up front, strode forward and showed vision to find McGuire in midfield.
He, in turn, slipped Liam Sutcliffe into space with a pass which, granted, may have been slightly forward.
Evalds dragged down the Leeds youngster but, as the ball went wide at the next play, Ward showed the old skill of dummying and then rolling possession to his other hand enabling him to fend the defender.
But Hardaker was off target and this game was far from over.
Salford Red Devils: Locke; Johnson, Sa’u, Caton-Brown, J Griffin; Chase, Fages; Morley, Tomkins, D Griffin, Hansen, Ashurst, Puletua. Substitutes: Rapira, J Walne, Evalds, Walton.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Aiton, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Walters, Ablett. Substitutes: Ward, Sutcliffe, Singleton, Minchella.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).