Catalans Dragons 10 Leeds Rhinos 20: Liam Sutcliffe the hero in bad-tempered play-off clash
With the stakes at their highest, defeat can spell the end of the season and even a career.
Hull FC-bound Liam Sutcliffe arrived in Perpignan knowing it could have been his final outing for his hometown club.
What followed was an inspired performance that guided Leeds Rhinos to a dramatic victory that had a bit of everything.
Leeds had a clear game plan and executed it expertly under intense pressure. If part of that strategy was to get under the skin of the opposition, it paid off handsomely.
Referee James Child dished out four cards to Catalans players, including a late red for Gil Dudson.
Sutcliffe was the difference with only a second hat-trick in his 10 seasons at Leeds to set up a semi-final against St Helens or Wigan.
Rohan Smith’s side ground out result after result on their way from second bottom to fifth and they were at their dogged best again on a night when the late Queen was honoured.
After comprehensively losing the forward battle on last week’s visit to Perpignan, it was clear early on that the Rhinos had little interest in getting into an arm wrestle.
Leeds got the ball to the edges quickly and displayed the kind of control that was missing in last week's nervy win over Castleford.
The Rhinos carved out the first chance inside the opening five minutes to fire a warning shot.
James Bentley put Richie Myler into space but his kick towards the corner could not be finished by Zak Hardaker.
Leeds kept knocking at the door in the early stages and appeared to have found a way through when Aidan Sezer dummied his way over, only to see his effort ruled out for a double movement following a lengthy video review.
The Rhinos were completing high and turning the ball over close to the Dragons' line, a recipe for success in the play-offs.
Catalans rarely threatened in a bad-tempered first half that simmered on the edge.
After Dylan Napa escaped a card for a high shot on Liam Tindall that evoked memories of his dismissal against St Helens in round one, there was an air of inevitability about what followed.
Bentley and Michael McIlorum became involved in a flashpoint but it was Mitchell Pearce who saw yellow for running in as the third man.
The Dragons managed the 10-minute spell without their chief half-back, taking two penalties on offer courtesy of the boot of Sam Tomkins.
In between kicks, Leeds lost young back-rower Morgan Gannon to a match-ending head injury after he found himself on the receiving end of a thunderous back-line carry from Sam Kasiano.
But just as Catalans appeared to have come through a tricky period unscathed, the Rhinos landed a double blow before half-time.
The influential Cameron Smith was the architect of the first try on 34 minutes, putting Sutcliffe through a hole and watching the centre do the rest with the help of Myler.
Leeds' running game had the Dragons worried and the hosts found themselves behind their posts again in the final minute of the half.
Blake Austin's break left Catalans on the back foot and after Myler was crowded out and Hardaker went close, Sutcliffe made it a double from Sezer's cross-field kick.
Hardaker improved both tries to give Leeds a deserved 12-4 half-time lead but there was a storm heading their way.
The Rhinos were unable to weather it, Dean Whare plucking Pearce's pinpoint kick out of the sky to finish just two minutes into the second half.
After Tomkins added the extras to make it a two-point game, neither side gave an inch with the match on the line.
The game reignited following another coming together between Bentley and McIlorum just before the hour mark.
In the next set, the Catalans hooker went looking for Bentley and was duly sin-binned for a high shot.
It had the feel of a pivotal moment and Sutcliffe was in no mood to let the opportunity slip away.
Sezer sent another high kick Sutcliffe's way and the Leeds stalwart rose highest to finish in some style.
Hardaker made no mistake from the tee to give Leeds an eight-point lead but it was all hands on deck after losing ever-present prop Mikolaj Oledzki to injury.
The Dragons continued to shoot themselves in the foot, however, and the Rhinos knew the job was done when Dudson was sent off for headbutting Sezer.
There was still time for Pearce to receive a second yellow card, allowing Hardaker to put the seal on a memorable win with another penalty.