SUPER LEAGUE is getting harder to predict, but some things can still be relied upon.
This season has already produced several unexpected results, but Leeds Rhinos’ 20-0 home win over Salford Red Devils was not among them.
It was the 42nd time the teams have met in Super League and Leeds’ 40th win.
In their last five visits to Headingley, Salford have managed a total of only 24 points – and 14 of those were in last year’s regular-season encounter.
Salford were the victims when Leeds broke an horrific seven-game losing streak in 2016 and, after a defeat and draw in their two previous matches, Rhinos were yet again too good on the day.
Having hammered Catalans Dragons on Good Friday, Salford may have fancied their chances against a lightweight Leeds side missing four of their senior front-rowers, but Rhinos were always in command.
The champions have been hit by a spate of injuries this season, particularly in the pack, but that has given some fringe players an opportunity to impress.
Ash Handley, a specialist winger, has played five successive games in the left-centre position and his try yesterday was his seventh in the last four.
Second-rower Cameron Smith, a highly-rated junior who had a spell on loan at Bradford Bulls last year but has yet to establish himself in Super League, is now on a run of four straight appearances off the bench.
He came on midway through the first half and caught the eye with his high workrate and there was a solid contribution from another teenager, prop Mikolaj Oledzki.
Back-rower Josh Walters has dropped down Leeds’ pecking order since scoring the crucial try in their 2015 Grand Final win over Wigan. He was demoted from squad number 21 to 30 in the close-season, but injuries led to him travelling to Australia for the World Club Challenge last month, though he didn’t play.
He has been in the squad ever since. Left out of the team which drew 22-22 at Huddersfield Giants on Good Friday, he started at loose-forward against Salford, played the full game and scored Leeds’ third and final try.
McDermott was delighted with all four of them and – with nine members of Rhinos’ elite 25-man squad either injured or not selected yesterday – admitted he will be facing some “difficult conversations” when his first-choice players are declared fit. Conditions turned both sides’ second game in four days into an attritional battle, but Leeds defended strongly throughout.
They coped better with the wet weather and took their limited chances when they came.
Our five biggest men in the squad are out injured and that takes its toll. Put it in context, that’s why that was a really good performance.Leeds Rhinosa’ head coach, Brian McDermott.
“Backing up from Friday was a challenge, but I thought we played really well,” was McDermott’s assessment.
“Our five biggest men in the squad are out injured and that takes its toll.
“Put it in context, that’s why that was a really good performance.”
Leeds had gone 24-0 and 12-0 behind in their two previous games, but scored first after only five minutes and were two converted tries ahead by half-time.
The opening try came after Salford’s Jake Bibby knocked on and in the set from the scrum Carl Ablett, Richie Myler and Kallum Watkins moved the ball right and Tom Briscoe finished at the corner.
On 16 minutes Joel Moon put up a high kick, Niall Evalds lost it behind Salford’s line and Handley, who had been following up to try and force a repeat set, touched down.
Watkins converted from the touchline and added a penalty just before the break.
Stevie Ward returned from injury for Leeds and snuffed out Salford’s best chance, crashing Bibby into touch just short of the line. Another Watkins penalty extended Rhinos’ lead in the third quarter and they withstood some heavy pressure before Walters ran a nice line to score the hosts’ third try four minutes from time and Watkins’ conversion completed the scoring.
McDermott added: “I thought Salford threw a bit at us.
“They certainly had some possession and it’s not easy to defend your tryline.
“That was a real standout in our armour today.”
Leeds Rhinos: Golding, Briscoe, Watkins, Handley, Hall, Moon, Myler, Delaney, Parcell, Singleton, Ward, Ablett, Walters. Substitutes: Ferres, Smith, Oledzki, Dwyer.
Salford Red Devils: Evalds, Bibby, Welham, Sa’u, Olpherts, Lui, Wood, Nakubuwai, Tomkins, Griffin, Jones, Tasi, Murray. Substitutes: Littlejohn, Hauraki, Burgess, Lannon.
Referee: G Dolan (Dewsbury).