A third straight Rhinos win will be remembered for the first-half fright Leeds were given by a Halifax side who thoroughly deserved their standing ovation when the hooter sounded.
Leeds were in total control for 20 minutes, but the rest of the first half was dire from them – easily their worst spell since another Championship side, London Broncos, made them look silly in the final quarter a month ago.
Leeds’ side included eight players who featured in last October’s Grand Final win against Castleford Tigers.
Up against Halifax’s part-timers, they were inept.
Not so much defensively, but in attack they offered nothing and Halifax – brilliantly led by Scott Murrell who played one game for Rhinos 13 years ago and the man with no number Brandon Moore – were the more inventive team.
Leeds took an early 6-0 lead and applied heavy pressure, but then lost their way and Halifax weren’t even slightly flattered by the 6-6 scoreline at the interval.
Leeds needed to step up a gear in the second half and, boosted by a terrific contribution from substitute Brad Dwyer, they did.
Tries on 41 and 50 minutes settled their nerves and they ran away with it in the end. It was a professional effort after the break, but the final scoreline didn’t tell the full story.
At this stage of the season, in this competition, the result is all that matters, but Rhinos’ first-half effort highlighted just how much work needs to be done in the off- and pre-season.
Irrespective of results elsewhere, Leeds will be playing in Betfred Super League next season unless they lose to Toronto Wolfpack by more than 31 points at Emerald Headingley on Friday.
With other top-flight sides losing to Championship opposition this weekend, Leeds are top of the Qualifiers table and on course to finish there.
They opened the scoring after five minutes when Joel Moon dabbed a kick infield for Richie Myler, who read it superbly to run through and touch down.
Myler had already had one chance, being pulled down a metre short by Jacob Fairbank when he looked a certain scorer.
Halifax threw themselves into tackles in the opening exchanges, but they struggled to cope with Leeds’ offloads and had no go-forward.
Nathaniel Peteru, Sutcliffe and Jordan Thompson all went close for Leeds who were obviously prepared to bide their time and let their physical superiority grind the hosts down.
That’s how it worked out in the end, but Rhinos endured some anxious moments first.
They didn’t take their chances, Halifax began to realise they had nothing to fear and with Leeds making a host of unforced errors and lacking any creativity in attack they battled their way back into the game.
It took the hosts 20 minutes to carry the ball over half-way and four more to get into Rhinos’ 20, but their first attack almost produced a try as Fairbank forced his way over the line, only to drop the ball.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan was Leeds’ lone playing survivor from their previous visit to The Shay 15 years ago and he reacted quickly to make a try-saving tackle on Steve Tyrer after he had intercepted from Adam Cuthbertson on half-way.
The same Fax player was kept out by Jimmy Keinhorst moments later, but finally got over the line on the half hour with a stunning catch from Murrell’s cross kick on the last.
His conversion squared the scores with nine minutes left in the half and that’s how it stayed until the interval, though Halifax had more of the attacking territory. A minute into the second period Sutcliffe put up a bomb which James Woodburn-Hall dropped and Brad Dwyer went over from acting-half in the resulting set.
Sutcliffe added his second conversion to edge Leeds further clear.
Dwyer has made the most of his opportunities since Kevin Sinfield returned to Rhinos as director of rugby in July and his contribution was game-changing.
He made another break from the restart. Josh Walters was in support and he had a player on his shoulder, but opted to go for glory and Kieren Moss stood his ground to drag him down.
Moments after that Jack Walker, who has been one of Leeds’ few success stories this season despite his injury woes, kept them in front by keeping Sion Jones out, though he was only a blade of grass short.
That was a scary moment for Leeds. But they gave themselves some breathing space for the first time on 50 minutes through more inspiration for Dwyer who threw a dummy and scooted over from acting-half.
There was no size in Leeds’ pack with only three front-rowers in the 17. One of those was Cuthbertson who was among the substitutes and is more of a loose-forward.
Lacking the injured Mitch Garbutt’s go-forward he has had to play a battering ram role this season which doesn’t suit him.
Yesterday, though, he was hugely effective at it and it was his strong run which set the field position for the fourth try, on 54 minutes.
It was a lovely finish from Sutcliffe who sliced brilliantly through the middle to cross between the posts, making his fourth conversion a formality.
As they tired, Halifax began giving penalties away and they were eventually placed on a team warning after 62 minutes.
The warning is often to the other team, that they will be penalised next and so it proved, almost leading to a try but for an outstanding tackle by the fearless Walker on Shane Grady, who lost possession as a result and went off hurt. Rhinos added two tries in the final 12 minutes, Cameron Smith coming off the bench to cross and then sending Luke Briscoe over with a clever long pass.
Sutcliffe failed to convert the final try, his only miss of the afternoon.
Halifax finished with 12 men after Ben Heaton was sin-binned two minutes from time for a high shot on Tom Briscoe.
There was just one change to Rhinos’ 17 from the previous week’s win over Salford, Walters returning, on the bench, in place of the suspended Brett Ferres.
Matt Parcell and Peteru both got a start and Brad Dwyer dropped to the bench.
The penalty count was 13-7 in Rhinos’ favour (five-four to them in the first half).