YOU can see how Craig Sandercock might not be a bad poker player.
Beforehand, the downbeat Hull KR coach, who had seen his side lose three successive games, said that you would have to be a “brave” man to back his depleted side at Headingley.
Hopefully, a few Rovers fans did. You sensed all along, despite missing 10 first-teamers, the Australian knew this sort of performance could still be achieved and they duly went on to produce a stunning result against the reigning Super League champions.
Just 24 hours after lowly Widnes Vikings caused an almighty shock to deny Warrington Wolves top spot, defiant Rovers delivered an incredible defensive performance last night to all but cement their place in the top eight and inflict fourth-placed Leeds’s first defeat in five games.
The East Yorkshire club had only ever won once here in the summer era but, with captain Michael Dobson steering his side around so expertly with his killer boot, and the likes of Adam Walker, Jordan Cox and Rhys Lovegrove having immense games up front, they held on for a famous win.
Admittedly, Leeds – who pre-match gave an emotional tribute to their former coach Graham Murray who died last month –were well below-par, seemingly running out of ideas to break down the visitors’ stubborn resistance. But nothing can be taken away from Sandercock’s side, who took the lead with Lovegrove’s 38th-minute try and never looked back.
That score came from a defensive howler which summed up Leeds’s frustrating night.
Lovegrove had no right to score when the Hull KR loose forward charged on to Dobson’s break and headed for the corner.
Ben Jones-Bishop seemed to have him sized up with the touchline his friend but, strangely, the full-back tried to lock up the ball and instead was carried right over the goalline from 5m out.
Dobson converted from the touchline – where Lovegrove should have finished up – and the visitors had somehow eked out an unlikely 12-6 interval lead.
Leeds had been far from slick themselves but Rovers had been slack, constantly encouraging them back in with soft handling errors near their own line.
There had been deadlock for the majority of a slow-paced opening quarter until Kallum Watkins intervened in the 19th minute.
As has so often been the case recently, it was the strapping teenager Liam Sutcliffe who produced the break and composed pass to set up Leeds’s try.
Playing at loose forward, he eluded Lovegrove and then brushed off Dobson with his sheer upper-body strength before easing into space to provide England centre Watkins’s 16th of the season.
Kevin Sinfield converted, bringing up yet another milestone with his 3,000th point in Super League, but few then would have imagined Leeds would struggle so much thereafter.
Referees are often criticised for seeking the safety of the video referee too often in televised games.
In fairness, Richard Silverwood confidently opted against doing so last night when Cox – the rangy young forward who impressed in defeat in Sunday’s derby against Hull FC – picked up the pieces after Ryan Hall failed to deal with Dobson’s hanging kick.
The official, however, must have wished he had erred on the side of caution.
The ubiquitous replays showed that Rovers colleague Sean Gleeson did initially knock the ball forward onto Hall when challenging and the 25th-minute score should have been disallowed.
Rovers, who have not been shy recently when it comes to their alleged mistreatment from officials’ decisions, did not complain and Dobson duly levelled.
In the second period, England winger Hall unusually spilled another spiralling Dobson kick and, when Zak Hardaker necessarily picked up in an offside position, Hull KR’s captain extended his side’s lead with the 44th-minute penalty.
A tremendous defensive effort from Rovers early in the second period then showed the real resilience and spirit of Sandercock’s side. It set the platform. Incredibly, they held out the champions for six successive sets on their own line having conceded three penalties and then seen Omari Caro pressured into conceding two drop-outs.
Granted, Leeds’s execution was badly off during that period and there was a worrying lack of invention but nothing can be taken away from the visitors’ endeavour.
It was then the hosts’ turn to come under pressure, Dobson assiduous kicking twice forcing drop-outs for his side.
When Sinfield struck the second restart straight into touch it gifted the Hull KR another easy two points in front of the posts.
Hall was correctly denied a try by video referee Ian Smith in the 62nd minute for not grounding Sinfield’s grubber, but they did get back in it 10 minutes later when the Leeds captain’s long diagonal kick to the right found James Duckworth, who then put Watkins over for his second.
Sinfield converted from wide out to create a tense finish, in which Sinfield dropped one glaring chance after Hall had got on the outside of Caro, but Rovers were worthy victors.
Afterwards a delighted Sandercock said: “I’m really pleased with the effort in defence to literally defend set after set after set and deliver that win.
“It’s great for the fans – we are a team of battlers just trying to do the best we can.
“I thought we deserved that result.”
Leeds Rhinos: Jones-Bishop, Duckworth, Watkins, Hardaker, Hall, Sinfield, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Peacock, Ablett, Clarkson, Sutcliffe. Substitutes: Foster, Moon, Kirke, Singleton.
Hull KR: Hall, D. Hodgson, Salter, Gleeson, Caro, Burns, Dobson, Tuimavave, J. Hodgson, Walker, Lovegrove, Cox, Mika. Substitutes: Withers, Netherton, Ollett, Green.
Referee: R Silverwood (RFL).