Brian McDermott’s error-ridden team had endured another abject evening, trailing 6-0 until Danny McGuire’s 69th-minute try, converted by Kevin Sinfield leveled matters against a spirited Crusaders.
However, the stubborn Welsh side, who had defended magnificently under a barrage of second-half pressure, secured a rare penalty to escape their own line and allow the excellent Michael Witt to slot a drop-goal just four minutes later.
It seemed Iestyn Harris’s side, full of defiance and endeavour in atrocious conditions, would gain a warranted revenge for their Challenge Cup exit at Headingley Carnegie earlier this season only for them to err fatally.
Jordan James, the Crusaders forward who had already spilled twice in the slanting rain, did so once more in the re-start to give desperate Leeds a gilt-edged opportunity.
Lauitiiti, the Samoan second-row who had been one of the few visiting players to show any signs of potency, duly picked up and set off on one of his trademark swirling, twisting runs to the posts to send his team-mates delirious with just four minutes remaining.
Sinfield converted and his team survived a few desperate late attacks from Crusaders to take two points they will know they perhaps did not deserve.
Having delivered their finest performance of the season to win at Hull KR on Sunday, last night’s offering was more of the disappointing fare which had seen them vanquished by Warrington and St Helens.
Their international players who had featured in the Origin International – Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Danny Buderus, Kylie Leuluai and Ryan Hall – clearly showed signs of playing their third game in seven days although Peacock did find enough energy to find the burst and off-load for McGuire’s crucial score.
However, he and Rob Burrow had a heated exchange during the first half when Leeds were almost opened up – a sign of the tension as they struggled – and the subdued visitors did not muster a chance of any real note until the 39th minute when Sinfield dinked a little kick over the defensive line for McGuire to hack on.
He beat Jordan Tansey to the ball but could not do likewise against Vince Mellars, the Crusaders winger sliding in to rescue the hosts.
Otherwise, lacklustre Leeds were bereft of ideas to break down a well-organised Welsh rearguard and too often wasted possession in a turgid affair.
In that first period, their final plays were unthreatening, Burrow and Paul McShane both choosing benign kick options.
Ex-Crusader Weller Hauraki tried to force an offload to Sinfield but the ball once more went to ground, Ryan Bailey spilled unnecessarily, Burrow ran behind his own man to concede a penalty and even the introduction of Buderus could not bring any order.
The victorious Exiles captain ushered a pass forward to Lee Smith from dummy half under no pressure and his side were fortunate not to be further behind at the break.
While Crusaders were similarly lax with the ball, they used what possession they did have to better effect and got over the line three times only to be denied.
Jason Chan was held up, as was the lively Jarrod Sammut, and Mellars failed to finish convincingly after Witt’s hanging kick.
Peter Lupton slid over to open the scoring on 10 minutes after a period of heavy pressure on the visitors’ line initiated by Lincoln Withers’s thoughtful 40/20 kick.
Chan was denied before Witt forced a drop out and, although Leeds initially survived, Brent Webb threw an awful pass given the greasy conditions to allow Crusaders a second stab which ex-Rhino Lupton did not turn down as Witt’s smart delivery prised them open. Just as uncertain as Leeds’s handling was the decision-making of the touch judges, one raising his flag for Witt’s conversion attempt, the other waving it away. Referee Ben Thaler had the final say deeming it missed.
Leeds were more direct and efficient after the break while also profiting from some Crusaders ill-discipline.
However, they were met by some tireless defence, Chan in particular outstanding.
Hall’s foot went in touch as he headed for the corner, McGuire squeezed out an off-load from a rare half-break but the supporting Webb could not take in the pass, and when the Kiwi took offence to Chan’s tackle 25m from his own line, lashing out with a petulant elbow, Witt accepted the two points to put Crusaders 6-0 ahead.
It seemed like it might be enough but then up stepped England captain Peacock to find McGuire – similar to the crucial one-two that decided last season’s Challenge Cup semi-final against St Helens – and then Lauitiiti, only playing after Carl Ablett was handed a rest, produced the finish.
Crusaders: Tansey, Reardon, Martin, Thomas, Mellars, Witt, White, Bryant, Withers, O’Hara, Winternstein, Chan, Lupton. Substitutes: Johnson, Sammut, Flower, James.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Hardaker, Delaney, Smith, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Hauraki, Sinfield. Substitutes: Lauitiiti, Buderus, Bailey, Kirke.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).