A YOUNG Leeds Rhinos side hit back from 18 points down to pip hosts Featherstone Rovers 32-28, but the sides’ final pre-season game was dominated by the blustery conditions.
Playing uphill and into the gale, Rhinos spent almost the entire first half on the defensive and were 22-4 behind at the break.
Rovers were totally dominant, played well and could have been further in front but for some desperate defence by the visitors, who only got in their opponents’ 20 three times.
It was a different story in the second half when Leeds had the advantage of the elements and made them count, running in five tries in the final 40.
Rovers, who begin their Betfred Championship campaign at Bradford Bulls on Sunday, took most of their big guns off by the end and finished with 12 men after Josh Hardcastle was sent off.
Leeds did nothing but defend before the interval, but after it centre Jack Broadbent and his England academy team-mate Cory Johnson, at hooker, impressed and Josh Walters was strong.
Big prop Tom Holroyd poached two tries through sheer strength close to the line and Dan Waite-Pullan made a couple of strong breaks.
Rhinos did not include any of the team beaten by Castleford Tigers last week, but did feature Jack Ormondroyd and Walters who had played for Rovers on dual-registration in the draw with Halifax the same afternoon.
Another member of that team, Ashton Golding, had been due to feature for Rhinos, but missed out owing to an ankle injury.
Luke Briscoe was not named in Rhinos’ initial squad, but came in on the left wing against the club where he smashed try-scoring records last year.
Rovers have strengthened their squad considerably over the past two weeks and Aussie hooker Cameron King and Papua New Guinea stand-off Ase Boas both made their first appearance less than a week after arriving in England.
Both wingers – ex-Hemel Stags flier Darren Forde and former Castleford Tigers academy captain Jack Render – were also appearing in Rovers colours for the first time having signed last week.
Former Rhinos forward Brett Delaney was not risked after picking up a knock last week when he returned from the serious facial injury he suffered playing for Leeds last July and several members of Featherstone’s new reserve squad were on the bench.
The Boas brothers, Ase and Watson, playing together in the halves – for the first time since the second Test against England Knights last autumn – were very impressive in tough conditions and will only get better with more game time and as the elements improve.
King, who played 11 times in the NRL for Parramatta Eels last year, took the game to Leeds at the start, scored the opening try and is also likely to be a force in the Championship and Hardcastle, James Lockwood and Luke Cooper also caught the eye early on.
The first half was one-way traffic from the fourth minute when King and Thompson Teteh, Rovers’ third Papua New Guinean, were both held up over the line after Loui McConnell had knocked-on in Rhinos’ half.
Two penalties and a drop-out kept Leeds under pressure and Rovers went ahead when King spotted a gap and ducked through from acting-half for a try which Watson Boas converted.
On 11 minutes Rovers were awarded a penalty on their own line, but Watson Boas’ kick didn’t find touch, the wind carrying it 15 metres infield for Leeds to pick up and begin a set which ended with Ben Markland touching down at the corner from Johnson’s long pass out of acting-half.
Rovers scored their second try on 18 minutes, after King’s grubber kick on the last forced a repeat set, Cooper crossing from Lockwood’s pass.
Rhinos conceded seven first-half penalties to three by Rovers. After Rovers’ fifth – on 21 minutes – Ormondroyd was yellow carded for Leeds’ persistent offending, though there was no obvious sign of a team warning.
Cooper and Hardcastle were both held up over the line in the subsequent set and Cooper and Brad Day were hauled down just short by some desperate defence. Leeds managed to come through Ormondroyd’s spell off the field unscathed, but soon after he returned Teteh powered over from a scrum 20 metres out after Markland had helped a kick by Watson Boas into touch.
There was no conversion, but Leeds were penalised in the set from the re-start and that led to Rovers’ fourth try, scored by Lockwood from John Davies’ pass and Watson Boas’ kick made it 22-4.
Rhinos needed a big start to the second half and got it when Holroyd crashed over from Johnson’s pass just two minutes in and Harvey Spence kicked the extras. Leeds conceded a penalty soon afterwards and Teteh – who looks strong and quick close to the line – finished strongly from close range for a try which Watson Boas improved.
At 28-10 Leeds were back up against it, but crucially Rovers lost the ball from the restart and Leeds were in again through Markland after nice passing across the line by captain Callum McLelland, Spence, Liam Whitton and Broadbent.
Holroyd proved unstoppable close to the line on 54 minutes with a copy of his first try and the conversion cut the gap to eight points. In the next set Johnson sent Walters dashing into space and Whitton was in support to score a lovely try, again improved by Spence.
Spence created the try which edged Leeds ahead with 10 minutes left, picking out Joe Burton with a pin-point kick which the academy winger did well to touch down. Spence converted from the touchline to seal Leeds’ comeback.
Rovers were reduced to 12 men for the final three minutes after Hardcastle was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Harry Georgiou.
The penalty count finished 11-8 in Rovers’ favour.
Rhinos’ substitutes included twins Joe and Oli Burton, first-year academy players, whose sister Abi is a member of England Women’s World Sevens squad.
Featherstone Rovers: Hartley, Forde, Teteh, Carey, Render, A Boas, W Boas, Wheeldon, King, Cooper, Day, Hardcastle, Lockwood. Subs Davies, Darley, Beckett, Hawkins, Punchard, Richardson, French, Taylor, Maskill.
Leeds Rhinos: Whitton, L Briscoe, A Sutcliffe, Broadbent, Markland, Spence, McLelland, Ormondroyd, Johnson, Holroyd, Trout, Walters, McConnell. Subs Waite-Pullan, Mustapha, Georgiou, Moorhouse, Martin, J Burton, O Burton.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).