Leeds Rhinos 18 Huddersfield Giants 14: Rohan Smith's side edge controversial clash as play-offs come early
The Rhinos were rewarded for a dogged performance three minutes from time when Blake Austin went over to go from zero to hero.
Austin had spent a spell in the sin bin in the first half and gave away another costly penalty but he atoned for those errors in emphatic fashion to spark jubilant scenes at Headingley, which is becoming a fortress for Leeds again.
A sixth straight victory piles pressure on Catalans Dragons in fourth spot and, more importantly, leaves the Rhinos three points clear of seventh-placed Castleford Tigers.
Huddersfield were left to reflect on one that got away after seeing Oliver Russell miss four of his five kicks at goal, although the match turned on a harsh yellow card in the final few minutes following an innocuous challenge by Chris Hill on Richie Myler.
While the Giants have been left playing for third spot, the Rhinos have their eyes on fourth and a home play-off game after extending their winning run.
Leeds’ resurgence could be traced back to Easter and the 20-20 draw with the Giants at Headingley.
Even though the hosts let a commanding lead slip late on, there were signs that the Rhinos were turning the corner under Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
Leeds have rediscovered their mojo since Rohan Smith’s arrival in May but discipline has been an issue throughout 2022.
The Rhinos were guilty of giving Huddersfield a leg up in the first half through penalties and six agains, a dangerous game against a team that rarely lose when they win the territory battle.
The Giants dominated the opening 40 minutes but had to settle for a slender 8-6 lead at the break due to Russell’s wayward kicking.
It was Leeds that landed the first blow inside the opening three minutes on the back of a barnstorming run through the middle by David Fusitu’a, back in the side after completing a two-game suspension.
The winger beat Oliver Wilson with some dazzling footwork before breaking into open field and although Myler was crowded out, the Rhinos composed themselves to score at the end of the set.
Ex-Huddersfield half-back Aidan Sezer sent a cross-field kick over to the left and Rhyse Martin was on hand to finish after good work by Ash Handley.
Martin added the extras - his 28th consecutive goal - to make it a dream start for the home side.
Eyebrows were raised when Smith included Tom Briscoe on a bench that featured only one prop but his decision was vindicated in the opening exchanges when Liam Sutcliffe picked up a knee injury.
Briscoe slotted in at left centre on his first appearance since April and immediately found himself in the trenches as Huddersfield started to do what they do best.
The Giants quickly shrugged off the early concession to dictate terms and suffocate Leeds in their own methodical way.
With the Rhinos on the back foot and unable to stop the flow of Huddersfield bodies coming through the middle, it felt like a matter of time before they buckled.
Leeds survived two scares in quick succession when Hill was held up over the line and Leroy Cudjoe had a try ruled out for a knock-on by Toby King on the next play.
But the Giants eventually found a way through in the 16th minute thanks to prolific centre Ricky Leutele.
A burst by Danny Levi took Huddersfield into Leeds territory and former Rhinos playmaker Tui Lolohea put Leutele over in the corner for his 14th try of the year.
Mikolaj Oledzki lost the ball reaching for the line but the Rhinos were unable to shift the momentum before half-time.
The home side were not helped by Austin’s ill-discipline, the half-back shown a yellow card after catching Sam Hewitt with a shoulder charge off the ball.
Russell missed the 30-metre penalty but Huddersfield kept hammering away at the door and left with a four-pointer.
After the Rhinos scrambled well to keep out Russell close to the line, Lolohea’s kick forced a repeat set and fast hands from Leutele allowed Louis Senior to finish in the corner.
Russell’s third miss let Leeds off the hook and the hosts were grateful for the half-time hooter after a taxing opening 40 minutes.
The Rhinos came out re-energised and enjoyed a dream start in a repeat of the first half.
King made a mess of Zak Hardaker’s restart and Myler powered his way over out wide after running it on the last tackle.
The full-back’s 199th career try was a timely one and Smith’s side visibly grew in confidence, penning Lolohea in his in-goal area thanks to an enthusiastic kick chase.
But Huddersfield were not on the back foot for long and soon began asking more questions of the Leeds defence.
The resolute Rhinos appeared to have weathered the storm until another costly brain snap by Austin.
His tip tackle invited the Giants back into Leeds territory and the half-back was duly punished when Cudjoe finished after a swift shift to the right.
It went from bad to worse for Leeds, Sezer sin-binned for a shoulder charge that injured Fages in the build-up.
Russell was off target once again but Huddersfield had a man advantage and another opportunity to siphon the home side’s tank.
The Rhinos lost Morgan Gannon to injury after Myler was dragged down just short and were guilty of overplaying as the pressure reached fever pitch.
Leeds were playing with fire and eventually got burnt following an error by Martin inside his own half.
The Rhinos were caught offside on their own line and Russell held his nerve to nudge Huddersfield in front with seven minutes to go.
Leeds had a lifeline when Hill was sent to the bin and Austin became a hero when he backed up a burst by Brad Dwyer to crash over next to the posts.
Martin slotted over the conversion to make sure but there was still time for Joe Greenwood to follow Hill into the bin.
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Fusitu’a, Hardaker, Sutcliffe, Handley, Austin, Sezer, Oledzki, Dwyer, Tetevano, Gannon, Martin, Bentley.
Substitutes: Leeming, Prior, O’Connor, Briscoe.
Huddersfield Giants: Lolohea, Cudjoe, King, Leutele, L Senior, Russell, Fages, Hill, Levi, Wilson, Hewitt, McQueen, Yates.
Substitutes: English, Greenwood, Trout, O’Brien.
Referee: Jack Smith.