An away tie against St Helens would have been a tough challenge at the best of times, but Leeds, who beat Salford to win the Cup in a delayed final last October, went into it shorn of most of their experienced backs.
Forwards Rhyse Martin and Cameron Smith were pressed into duty as seventh- and eighth-choice half-backs and another forward, Alex Mellor, filled in at centre.
With 12 of his senior squad unavailable, coach Richard Agar gave a debut to 17-year-old forward Morgan Gannon, whose father Jim played for Halifax, Huddersfield Giants and Hull KR during the early years of Super League.
The fact the youngster, a product of the Siddal community club in Halifax, was promoted straight from Leeds’ scholarship to the full-time group illustrates how highly he is thought of among Rhinos’ staff.
He was brought off the bench in the final 15 minutes, at a time when the game was in the balance and certainly didn’t look out of place.
Clearly these are very early days, but he is a name to watch out for and such an early taste of top-level rugby will stand him in good stead.
The same applies to 20-year-old Sam Walters who gave a good account of himself in the starting second-row and substitute forward Jarrod O’Connor, son of ex-Great Britain prop Terry O’Connor, who has similarly limited experience, but stood up well against much bigger opponents.
Another Leeds rookie, Jack Broadbent, is ever-present so far this season, having begun in his specialist centre position before moving to full-back for the past two games.
The 20-year-old is emerging as a hugely promising prospect, safe defensively and under high kicks and an exciting runner going forward.
In empty stadiums, his commanding talk from full-back, organising much more experienced team-mates, has also been noticeable.
Had Rhinos been at full-strength, it is likely none of the young players mentioned would have made the 17, but the experience they are gaining could prove invaluable.
Given their teamsheet, Leeds’ best hope before the third round tie seemed to be to keep the score respectable, but they pushed Saints all the way, despite having pack leader Zane Tetevano sent off early in the second half, following a late challenge on Saints play-maker Theo Fages.
The penalty from that increased Saints’ half-time lead to 10-6 and they scored two tries in the next 15 minutes, both through Regan Grace, to go 20-6 ahead, at which time a Rhinos collapse seemed inevitable.
But in Brad Dwyer, Rhinos have a player who can raise the tempo for his side and change the flow of a game.
He did that with a brace of converted tries, both from acting-half, which left Leeds only two points adrift inside the final nine minutes.
A second touchdown by Tommy Makinson, who had also scored the opener after less than four minutes and the same player’s fifth goal eventually sealed the home side’s place in the quarter-finals, but it was a close-run thing. With three forwards in the backs, Leeds adopted a conversative gameplan, keeping their plays simple and attacking Saints down the middle, a tactic which led to all three of their tries, the first of which was scored with tremendous power from close-range by Mikolaj Oledzki.
Though now an established, first-choice forward, the Polish-born England Knights man is only 22 and another player Leeds could build a successful future around. The same applies to Smith, who did a solid job as an emergency scrum-half.
With experienced half-backs, it is a game Leeds might have won.
The positive is, their defensive effort was outstanding, they played with impressive spirit and once some senior players return, Leeds will be confident of closing the gap on Super League’s leading sides.
St Helens: Coote, Makinson, Naiqama, Welsby, Grace, Lomax, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, Lees, Thompson, Bentley, Mata’utia. Subs McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Amor, Paasi, Dodd.
Leeds Rhinos: Broadbent, T Briscoe, Mellor, A Sutcliffe, L Briscoe, Martin, Smith, Oledzki, Leeming, Prior, Walters, Donaldson, Tetevano. Subs Dwyer, O’Connor, Vuniyayawa, Gannon.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).
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