QUIETLY and with the minimum of fuss, Leeds Rhinos appear joint-top of Super League on Saturday morning.
If there was a crisis earlier this month when chief executive Gary Hetherington intimated, after an embarrassing defeat at Castleford, that the next four games were critical with regards the futures of staff across the football department, it has certainly been averted.
That is with one game to spare, too. Although this hard-fought victory over a poor Huddersfield Giants side was more reserved and attritional than the 46-10 rout of Catalans Dragons and 38-14 victory over Wakefield Trinity, it ensured there will be no more question marks about Brian McDermott’s future.
Instead, the head coach will prepare his side for next Friday’s visit from champions Wigan Warriors – usurped from top by Hull FC who ended their unbeaten 11-match run – with added belief they can not only maintain their revival, but improve, too.
In truth, Leeds’s margin of victory should have been far greater; they outscored Huddersfield five tries to two, despite being far from fluent in this West Yorkshire derby.
However, Ashton Golding could only convert one of his four attempts so the struggling hosts were never too far away.
This said, such was the sparsity of attacking quality from Giants, once the Leeds full-back slotted a penalty to make it 20-12, McDermott’s side already seemed safe even with 22 minutes still to play.
That score came after Aaron Murphy – making his 200th career appearance – was penalised for not playing the ball correctly, the sort of rudimentary error that is routinely damaging Rick Stone’s side.
Alex Mellor, the young former Bradford Bulls centre, followed up with a similar gaffe soon after, spilling as he tried to play the ball quickly.
Grateful Leeds, with Brett Ferres enjoying his latest return to his former club, just lapped it all up.
If there was a crisis earlier this month at Leeds Rhinos ... it has certainly been averted.The YP’s Dave Craven
While the visitors gather momentum, struggling Huddersfield are in dire need of some; they may have drawn at Wigan the previous week, but it cannot mask the fact they have now won just once in seven games.
Unless there is improvement soon, they will be heading towards the Qualifiers again.
There were flashes of life, mainly from the positive stand-off Lee Gaskell, who instigated two tries in three minutes midway during the first half to put them 12-10 ahead.
However, it was all too fleeting, Stone’s side proving too meek in too many areas.
Danny Brough has never been far from the headlines of late, particularly after a national newspaper report of an alleged bust-up with Stone.
He did have a bust-up with Leeds’s Carl Ablett after the Huddersfield stand-off took offence to a tackle in the 45th minute.
Brough landed two punches that, understandably, prompted a reaction from the former England second-row who must have felt hard done by when told by referee Ben Thaler to follow the transgressor into the sin-bin.
Neither side scored during that 10-minute spell, Leeds comfortably absorbing plenty of pressure to maintain their 18-12 interval lead.
They had started fast and accurately. Golding made a lovely incision to set up winger Tom Briscoe before second-row Ferres dinked a grubber through for Ryan Hall to score in the same corner where he gloriously captured Leeds the League Leaders’ Shield in their 2015 treble-winning year.
Only 10 minutes had passed and Huddersfield looked stunned.
However, gaining territory from a penalty, they responded when Gaskell – continuing instead of Ryan Brierley in the playmaker role – attacked the line and found Ukuma Ta’ai on his shoulder in the 18th minute.
Brough converted and, soon after, some wonderful handling from full-back Darnell McIntosh after Gaskell again committed defenders, saw Jermaine McGillvary over, too, Brough once more improving.
Ablett captialised on a loose pass from one of his colleagues, though, to show good speed to get through from 2om in the 25th minute.
But Brough’s bouncing grubber almost saw Murphy in, too, as both sides sought to gain the upper hand.
Ablett followed Ferres’s lead by grubbering through for Matt Parcell to score after McIntosh lost his bearings and it was Ablett who showed his defensive quality to deny Gaskell at the other end.
Brilliant handling from Ta’ai should have seen Huddersfield in again before the break, but McIntosh ignored both Leroy Cudjoe and McGillvary.
It was their best chance wasted. Liam Sutcliffe, on his 100th career appearance, arrived to take over kicking duties after Golding slotted a penalty.
He added another and converted Jordan Baldwinson’s late try,
Huddersfield Giants: McIntosh; McGillvary, Cudjoe, Mellor, Murphy; Gaskell, Brough; Rapira, Leeming, Ikahihifo, Ferguson, Ta’ai, Clough. Substitutes: Hinchcliffe, Wakeman, Roberts, Smith.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding; Briscoe, Watkins, Keinhorst, Hall; McGuire, Moon; Baldwinson, Parcell, Cuthbertson, Ablett, Ferres, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Burrow, Sutcliffe, Garbutt, Mullally.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield)