IT is an old adage but defences win matches just as Leeds Rhinos were reminded so joyfully last night.
Brian McDermott’s side picked up their first Super League win of the season but how they had to battle for it at fired-up Leigh Centurions.
The newly-promoted side, embarrassed somewhat 44-16 at Castleford last week in their first top-flight game in a dozen years, were a different beast here.
Leigh scored two tries inside the opening eight minutes to stun Leeds and, though the visitors charged back to take a 15-8 interval lead, they were left desperately clinging on at the death.
Defence, though. So crucial. As they strived to protect a narrow 17-14 lead in the dramatic final quarter, there were two brilliant try-saving tackles that broke Leigh hearts.
First, Jimmy Keinhorst, the versatile player who has gradually carved out his own little niche at Headingley, somehow got across to deny Atelea Vea as a loose bouncing ball from Josh Drinkwater’s high kick seemed certain to end in carnage for Leeds in the 75th minute.
Leigh had one more chance, though, as former Queensland State of Origin centre Willie Tonga accelerated on the outside of Kallum Watkins and found Matty Dawson angling in off his wing, seemingly destined to be the hero. Tom Briscoe, though, thought otherwise, the former England winger smothering his rival with a wonderful tackle.
Soon after, Leeds stand-off Liam Sutcliffe – whose earlier errant kick had led to pressure –produced a timely 40/20 to end all the panic.
It was a hard-earned victory and one, in fairness, Leeds probably narrowly deserved.
Admittedly, they should have expected an explosive start from their hosts; this was Leigh’s first home game in Super League since 2005 so their starved fans had been waiting some time.
Leeds could argue they were blinded by the lingering smoke still swirling around the pitch from the pre-match fireworks or that could at least be one reason for – ironically given his later effort – Briscoe’s baffling defensive error for Leigh’s opener.
He came in and casually wafted his hand at Drinkwater’s harmless pass, the ball falling to Dawson who crossed. Ben Reynolds, the former Castleford youngster given a chance at half-back with Martin Ridyard dropped, then dummied through.
He was tackled but squeezed out a scruffy pass that saw surprised full-back Mitch Brown fall over for their second try, bemused Leeds still trying to find their feet.
McDermott responded quickly. Off came prop Anthony Mullally after just nine minutes and on came Adam Cuthbertson, the Australian shortlisted for Man of Steel two years ago but far from his best last term.
Here, he instantly made an impact, driving hard and strong off Matt Parcell’s short pass to charge over with only his second touch.
Sutcliffe converted and, soon after, his side were in again, this time dummy-half Parcell the architect with a brilliant surging run clear from half-way.
Carl Ablett provided the link and Ryan Hall finished in trademark style.
Suddenly, Leeds had arrived. Having absorbed Leigh’s opening salvos, and with fit-again captain Danny McGuire returning from the bench, they should have scored more.
Sutcliffe put Watkins into space but Rob Burrow was hauled in while, after Drinkwater sliced a 40/20 attempt straight into touch, Rhinos were caught in possession on the last tackle.
They did add a third after another striding Cuthbertson carry tore a hole in Leigh’s middle, the ball moved wide for Jimmy Keinhorst to produce wonders to get over. Leeds wasted another chance at the start of the second period when Watkins failed to grasp a defence-splitting pass from the excellent Stevie Ward.
Leigh refused to yield and enjoyed more of the attacking pressure in that second period.
When Jamie Acton was yellow-carded for trying to slow down a 20m restart in the 57th minute, it seemed Leeds would take advantage. Instead, all they managed was a Sutcliffe penalty and, moments after Acton returned, Ben Crooks capitalised on some tired defence to weave infield for their third try. Reynolds converted to set up that finale but Leigh had no way of breaching those remarkable efforts at the end.
Leigh Centurions: Brown; Higson, Crooks, Tonga, Dawson; Reynolds, Drinkwater; Hock, Pelissier, Maria, Paterson, Vea, Hansen. Substitutes: Hampshire, Hopkins, Acton, Tickle.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding; Briscoe, Watkins, Keinhorst, Hall; Sutcliffe, Burrow; Mullally, Parcell, Singleton, Ward, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: McGuire, Cuthbertson, Walters, Ormondroyd.
Referee: Jack Smith (Wigan).