COACH Brian McDermott refused to be drawn on captain Kevin Sinfield’s continued absence after Leeds Rhinos suffered a shock defeat at Widnes Vikings.
Leeds, who would have moved four points clear at the top of the table had they won, have now gone three games without a Super League victory.
Sinfield was among the substitutes for the first of those, a home loss to Warrington Wolves and was dropped altogether for last week’s 24-24 draw at Huddersfield Giants and the 38-24 away defeat yesterday.
Asked if Sinfield, who will cross codes to join Yorkshire Carnegie at the end of the season, could return in Saturday’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup sixth-round tie at home to Huddersfield, McDermott would say only: “everyone is in contention”.
Leeds certainly missed Sinfield yesterday, and not just for his goal kicking. The visitors looked disorganised in both attack and defence, made a series of costly errors and lacked a leader to steady the ship when things were going against them.
Widnes were the better team for most of the game and went ahead before Leeds had been in possession, two penalties and a scrum putting the visitors under huge pressure before Chris Clarkson crashed over. That was a sweet moment for the second-row forward, who is on a season-long loan at Widnes from Leeds.
He had already been the victim of an alleged dangerous tackle by Joel Moon, inside the first minute, which was placed on report and will be studied by the RFL’s match review panel today.
Leeds rallied to score the next two tries, taking a 10-4 lead. Stevie Ward stretched across from a pass by Danny McGuire and then the No 6 stabbed a kick over the Widnes line, the home defence failed to pick the ball up and Moon touched down.
Liam Sutcliffe converted Moon’s try, one of his two goals from five attempts, but, on the back of a heavy penalty count, Widnes had most of the play after that.
Jack Owens created and converted a try scored by Stefan Marsh and Widnes went back in front with a controversial touchdown four minutes from half-time.
Referee Phil Bentham indicated a penalty when Joe Mellor was tackled high by Paul Aiton, both sets of players hesitated, but the official – who had not blown his whistle – changed his mind, allowed the advantage and Mellor ran through to cross unopposed.
Owen’s conversion made it 16-10, but Leeds cut the gap on the final play of the half when Kallum Watkins finished strongly at the corner from Jimmy Keinhorst’s pass.
The two-point gap was as close as Leeds got. Widnes took hold of the game soon after the break when Danny Galea crossed from close-range and Manase Manuokafoa’s try increased the home team’s lead to 28-14, but two tries in as many minutes got the visitors back in the game.
Watkins touched down from a pin-point kick by Sutcliffe, who then landed his second conversion after Keinhorst crossed at the corner.
At that stage, just four points behind, Leeds seemed the most likely winners, but the match turned on a poor decision by full-back Zak Hardaker, whose unnecessary pass near his own line was dropped by Watkins.
Widnes moved two scores clear at the end of the resulting set, through Chris Dean, with Owens booting his fifth and final conversion and Aaron Heremaia completed the scoring with a walk-in two minutes from time.
McDermott admitted: “I didn’t think we were great, throughout the game.
“Had we won that, I was getting my mind ready for still letting the players know all was not well.
“The result went the right way in the end, all be it through some dramatic circumstances at the end, with the pass.
“But that’s not why we lost. It was a range of things, I didn’t think we were error-riddled, but defensively we were leaky.”
Ward limped off with an ankle injury and could be a doubt for Saturday’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup tie at home to Giants.
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury, Owens, Marsh, Dean, Ah Van, Brown, Mellor, Dudson, White, Gerrard, Clarkson, Galea, Isa. Substitutes: Heremaia, Manuokafoa, Joseph, Whitley.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Watkins, Keinhorst, Moon, Handley, Sutcliffe, mcGuire, Cuthbertson, Burrow, Singleton, SWard, Ablett, Delaney. Substitutes: Aiton, Peacock, Achurch, Walters.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).