THE return from injury of hooker Paul Aiton was the biggest positive Leeds Rhinos could take from yesterday’s hard-fought, but scrappy triumph at Widnes Vikings.
Aiton had been out of action for 12 weeks as he underwent a course of medication to treat an unspecified illness, but came off the substitutes’ bench midway through the first half and was influential in the second as stuttering Leeds overcame a 16-10 interval deficit.
The Papua New Guinea international handled cleverly in the build-up to touchdowns by Tom Briscoe and Danny McGuire – his second of the game – which finally put daylight between the teams.
England forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan returned after being sidelined for a similar length of time due to a biceps tear and coach Brian McDermott enthused: “Both Paul and Jamie Jones-Buchanan have been out for weeks, but they fell back into it straight away and it was like they had played last week and the week before.
“It was good to have Paulie back. I thought he made a good impact for us defensively as well as some good subtleties.”
In the opening quarter it looked as though Leeds were on course for a straight-forward victory. After that it fell apart for a while as they struggled to complete their sets, made some poor decisions and looked untypically fragile in defence, particularly under Widnes’s clever kicking game.
But with Aiton, McGuire and captain Kevin Sinfield pulling the strings, Rhinos got back into their stride in the second half and won with something to spare, though Leeds will need to improve considerably when it comes to the meaningful games at the end of the season.
Leeds went ahead after three minutes when Kallum Watkins proved too strong for Vikings’ left-side defence, powering over following a 20 metres scrum. Ten minutes later, McGuire – back in the side after two weeks out due to a calf strain – played a one-two with Ben Jones-Bishop before jinking between the posts and making Sinfield’s conversion a formality.
Widnes didn’t get into Leeds’s half until the 21st minute and that came courtesy of a penalty. They scored from it and what followed was Leeds’s poorest spell of the season.
With Kevin Brown out due to injury, Rhys Hanbury took responsibility for making the home side’s defence tick and it was his inside pass which created the opening try for Chris Dean.
On the half hour Danny Craven kicked to the corner, Ryan Hall knocked the ball down and Hanbury picked up to scamper over for a simple try, to which Patrick Ah Van added his second conversion.
That came after Aiton knocked-on, was penalised for dissent and then marched another 10 minutes as he continued to dispute referee Ben Thaler’s decision.
A minute before the break McGuire dummied to the Widnes line and offloaded to Hall who simply needed to make the catch and touch down. He knocked on, Widnes surged to the other end and as the hooter sounded Joe Mellor kicked to Leeds’s right flank and Ah Van made the catch to send the home side in 16-10 ahead.
Leeds were much improved in the second half, as Widnes – playing their third game in 10 days and also missing key forward Danny Tickle – tired.
Hall had a touchdown disallowed when McGuire’s long pass was ruled forward, but Sinfield went in from McGuire’s short pass and then Liam Sutcliffe dummied over to make it 22-16 on 51.
Eleven minutes later Aiton’s pass sent Hall away and he drew the cover before passing on to Briscoe, who had come across from the opposite wing.
He had too much pace for the defence and Sinfield’s goal gave Leeds a 12-point advantage.
With 13 minutes left Aiton’s pass picked out Sinfield, who put McGuire over, the captain landing his fifth goal.
Grant Gore pulled a converted try back for Widnes, but Leeds’s nerves were settled when teenager Josh Walters took advantage of good play by McGuire and Sinfield to score his first Super League try.
He was held up over the Widnes line in the final minute, but in the same set Hall’s fumble was pounced on by Joe Mellor and he raced the length of the field to score, with Ah Van landing a fourth goal.
That late touchdown made Widnes’s total the highest scored against Rhinos this year and McDermott conceded his team were “still off in some areas”.
He added: “We were playing a very determined Widnes and I was pleased we won. It was good to sing our song afterwards and have a smile on our face, but we have still got some work to do. We are still not there.”
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury, Flynn, Dean, Marsh, Ah Van, Mellor, Craven, Kavanagh, White, Gerrard, Lawton, Allen, Leuluai. Substitutes: Johnson, Joseph, Isa, Gore.
Leeds Rhinos: Jones-Bishop, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Bailey, R Ward, Singleton, Delaney, Ablett, Sutcliffe. Substitutes: Kirke, Jones-Buchanan, Aiton, Walters.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).