HAVING not defeated Huddersfield Giants in their previous seven meetings, any victory for Leeds Rhinos was always likely to be hard-earned.
This eventual breakthrough, however, that puts Brian McDermott’s side top of Super League as their 100 per cent start is maintained, should have arrived in a far more straightforward manner.
Taking an 18-0 lead after just 25 minutes, Leeds were far from slick yet still so much better than a Huddersfield side that looked disjointed and even disinterested.
Yet their West Yorkshire rivals, now without a win from any of their three league games so far, somehow fought back, showing great character to lead 24-22 with just six minutes to go as the hosts endured their own breakdown.
Eventually, it took Paul Aiton, the lively Papuan hooker who is keeping Rob Burrow on the sidelines, to rescue them in the 74th minute with his first try since joining the club from Wakefield Trinity at the end of 2013.
Huddersfield thought they had extended their impressive record here when Brett Ferres – the England second-row who otherwise had an irritable night – cruised over in the 68th minute off Danny Brough’s pass for the creator to kick them ahead for the first time.
It had been some turnaround after Giants’ first-half debacle.
Brough had already failed to realise it was not the last tackle, Ukuma Ta’ai subsequently getting tackled in possession in his own half, by the time the hosts took a sixth-minute lead.
Carl Ablett scored, all too easily beating Jack Hughes close to the Giants’ line after Ferres had needlessly gifted a penalty by holding down Tom Briscoe.
Kevin Sinfield improved and, though Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker quickly fumbled at a play-the-ball, Ferres handed it straight back when he failed to take Craig Huby’s flat ball.
To make matters worse, the 28-year-old then conceded a penalty when in possession after shoving Aiton when the Rhinos’ hooker was proving clingy as he tried to get to his feet.
The home side did not make Huddersfield pay for that indiscretion, but they did when Aaron Murphy left his hand on the ball too long after tackling Kallum Watkins to cede another 40m territory.
Adam Cuthbertson, the rugged prop from Newcastle Knights, duly rumbled over for his second try in three games, shaking off – you guessed it – Ferres, who is normally such a solid defender.
In the next set, Leeds exposed Huddersfield’s fragile right flank with ease as Ablett unleashed Joel Moon into the space, the centre finding Ryan Hall who powered in at the corner, Sinfield maintaining his 100 per cent record with the boot. At that point, you had to fear for the troubled visitors who looked all at sea.
Yet it is amazing what that first penalty of the evening can do for confidence. It came in the 28th minute and, in the following set with some rare attacking position, Jamie Ellis, the stocky scrum-half signed from Castleford Tigers, put on a big step which flummoxed Hardaker’s weak tackle attempt 10m out and suddenly Paul Anderson’s side were revived.
Brough converted and when Leeds somehow conceded the oddity of a penalty at a scrum, the Fartowners were over once more, Shaun Lunt – the hooker who won a Grand Final while on loan with Rhinos in 2012 – ushering Joe Wardle over from close range.
Brough kicked the extras and, with just seconds remaining of the half, Leeds were thankful of a desperate arm from Stevie Ward as he dislodged the ball as Wardle strived to get over for the centre’s second.
Crucially, again, Ward was to the fore just seconds into the second half when he surged clear, fended off Jake Connor and then found Briscoe with a brilliant flick pass for the winger to score, Sinfield improving.
Jermaine McGillvary served warning, though, when he was narrowly denied in the corner by Hall and, after Connor had somehow forced Achurch into fumbling over the line, Anderson’s side got a sniff.
Ellis’s pass was forward but, from there, Leroy Cudjoe chipped ahead and Kyle Wood, the hooker playing his first game since rupturing his cruciate ligament last July, bagged a try,
Brough’s kick made it 22-18 before Ferres made up for those earlier indiscretions after Jamie Peacock flopped on Murphy.
However, Aiton had the last word and Leeds – who head to Hull FC next Thursday – scrambled desperately at the finish as Ellis’s break was finally smothered and a first home win against the Giants since 2010 was secured.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Cuthbertson, Aiton, Peacock, Ward, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Sutcliffe, Leuluai, Achurch, Singleton.
Huddersfield Giants: Connor; McGilvary, Cudjoe, Wardle, Murphy; Brough, Ellis; Huby, Lunt, Mullally, Ferres, Hughes, Ta’ai. Substitutes: Wood, Kopczak, Lawrence, Crabtree.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).