THEY SUFFERED a third defeat in four Betfred Super League games, but Leeds Rhinos are growing as a team.
St Helens’ second-half fightback earned them a 27-22 win at the Totally Wicked Stadium tonight, but Rhinos played some fine rugby in a terrific clash.
The first half was typical Leeds-Saints, utterly madcap, played at a breathless pace and with no end of thrills and spills.
Saints looked to be heading for a cricket score when they raced into their early lead, but two incidents – a fumble and ball steal – turned the game on its head and from then on Rhinos were rampant, running in 22 unanswered points before the break. They could not add to their total in the second half, but it wasn’t through lack of effort.
Saints started the second half in similar fashion to the first with two quick-fire tries to cut the gap to two points and they hit the front with 18 minutes left.It was an outstanding game of Super League. Defences were opened up at times, but the two teams scrambled superbly at others.
Saints did enough in the second half, but Rhinos battled all the way and had chances to win it – and they were on the wrong end of some contentious calls by the match officials.
It was a huge effort by both teams who played for most of the match with only 16 available players, Rhinos losing Stevie Ward to a knee injury after only 14 minutes.
There was a long stoppage in the second minute when Kevin Naiqama got his technique wrong trying to tackle Lolohea, who was clearly concerned and tended to the grounded man as play continued. Naiqama managed to walk off for a concussion assessment, but did not return.
Matt Parcell dropped out after suffering an ear injury last week which required hospital treatment which meant Brad Dwyer had to play the full 80 at hooker.
He produced a fine all-action performance, particularly in the first half and Brett Ferres had possibly his finest game for the club.
Leeds’ passing during their first-half purple patch was top-class and they are developing a kicking game as the halves gel.
Rhinos also have some key players to come in. Joining long-termers Carl Ablett, Dom Crosby and Jamie Jones-Buchanan on the casualty list was James Donaldson (concussion).
Liam Sutcliffe returned from illness in the second-row and Mikolaj Oledzki was back after a hip injury as a substitute.
Trent Merrin switched from loose-forward to prop, Ward moved to the back of the scrum and Adam Cuthbertson dropped to the bench.
Saints’ opening try was controversial, though it came from a Leeds error. Theo Fages’ kick on the last was picked up by Hurrell, who immediately lost it back to the scrum-half who forced his way to the line.
Referee Robert Hicks indicated a try and – though it appeared to be a double-movement – video official Chris Kendall gave the green light.
Mark Percival couldn’t convert and then butchered a chance when he sped down the left with support, but didn’t use it and was wrapped up by Jack Walker, who had another fine game.
The Leeds full-back made another try saving tackle after a sensational beak by Regan Grace, but Saints scored later in the set when Percival’s offload went off Nathaniel Peteru to Jonny Lomax who touched down.
At that stage, after just eight minutes and 10-0 down following Percival’s successful kick, Rhinos were being overrun. Against all logic, they were ahead 15 minutes later.
They hadn’t managed to get out of their half before Saints’ second score, but the kick-off was dropped into touch by Percival and Leeds scored from the scrum through Kallum Watkins, after Merrin, Richie Myler and Walker had handled. Lolohea’s huge touchline goal got Rhinos right back into it.
On 18 minutes, Hicks indicated a try when Tom Briscoe gathered a kick over Leeds’ line and the ball came out in Lachlan Coote’s tackle. The Australian full-back touched down, but he had ripped the ball out and Kendall said no score.
Five minutes later Briscoe’s run was halted by Grace’s ankle tap, but Leeds moved the ball left on the last through Lolohea, Myler and Brett Ferres.
Hurrell was next in line and he finished like a bulldozer, straight over the top of Fages. Lolohea landed another tremendous goal from the opposite touchline to his first and, remarkably and totally against the run of play, Leeds were ahead.
Hurrell was denied a second touchdown by a dubious forward pass by Hicks, against Lolohea. Moments later Hurrell sent Ash Handley in, but this time there could be no argument with the forward pass ruling.
By this stage Leeds were running hot and it was Saints struggling to hang on. Seven minutes before the interval Rhinos extended their lead.
Dwyer almost got over from acting half then Ferres and Hurrell shifted the ball left and Handley went in for his 11th try in eight games against Saints.
There was no conversion, but Rhinos weren’t finished for the half. On 37 minutes Dwyer turned the ball to Oledzki and he somehow crashed over between the posts with a posse of defenders all over him.
Hicks awarded the try, though it was hard to tell if the ball was down and Lolohea’s third goal made it 22-10 at the break.
The first score after the break was going to be crucial and Saints got it as Alex Walmsley grabbed the game by the throat.
The former Batley prop crossed five minutes in to get Saints back in it.
Though it was very early, Rhinos could have opened a three-score lead with a drop goal in their first set of the half, but didn’t go for it.
Myler’s last tackle kick was defused and Saints went up the field to cross through Walmsley who went over from James Roby’s pass. Percival converted.
A couple of minutes later Dwyer made a try-saving tackle on Fages on the last after Coote had cut through.
A penalty against Hurrell for interference on Walmsley got Saints back up field and they were over again on 50 minutes with a remarkably powerful finish from Walmsley.
Percival failed to convert and then missed with a straight-forward penalty shot on 54 minutes.
What looked to be an error from Hicks led to the try which edged Saints back in front. Tommy Makinson dropped the ball and Hurrell picked up, but the referee gave the scrum to Saints. Inevitably they made the gift count, though Leeds’ defence should have stopped Luke Thompson well short. Percival’s goal made it 26-22.
Cuthbertson had a touchdown correctly ruled out by Hicks and Kendall with seven left and then Lolohea got over and again the officials both said no, ruling he was held up.
That was yet another decision which might have gone Leeds way on another day. Lomax thought he had sealed it in the next set, but his touchdown was ruled out by the two officials for an obstruction. Roby completed the scoring with a drop goal in the final minute.
There were only six penalties, three to each side - two-one in Leeds’ favour in the first half.