THEY WERE made to work harder than the 36-10 scorelines suggests, but Leeds Rhinos can plan for life in Super League again next season following a priceless win at fellow strugglers London Broncos.
With two rounds remaining, Leeds are four points clear of bottom club London, but their huge points difference advantage means they can’t, realistically, be caught.
It would be stretching a point to say he has transformed their fortunes since taking charge in May, but under interim-coach Richard Agar Leeds appear to be heading in the right direction.
Scoring points was never the problem, but Leeds are a much more solid defensive outfit than the team Agar inherited from sacked coach Dave Furner and, though the club are playing their cards close to their chest, the former Hull and Wakefield boss looks likely to remain at the helm next year.
Leeds had to endure some nervous moments against a desperate London team who could yet pull off the great escape if they win at two more struggling sides, Hull KR and Wakefield Trinity, in their final two games.
London hit back from 18-0 to 18-10, but Rhinos were the better side and once they had steadied the ship, through Ash Handley’s 22nd try of the season, they cut loose to finish emphatic winners.
Despite turning around three scores ahead, Leeds didn’t have things all their own way in the first half and needed a try just before half-time to snatch some breathing space.
At one stage they had to defend five successive sets inside their own 20, but refused to crack as Mikolaj Oledzki held Luke Yates up over the line and Eddie Battye, London’s former Sheffield Eagles front-rower, looked a certain scorer at the corner, but Rhyse Martin, Luke Briscoe and Brad Dwyer forced him into touch.
Rhinos opened the scoring after seven minutes when Briscoe pounced on an error by Elliot Kear and raced in from 30 metres.
Leeds coach Agar made a change at hooker, promoting Dwyer to the starting line-up; and leaving Shaun Lunt out of his 17.
Dwyer justified his coach’s faith with a strong 80-minute performance and it was his short pass from acting-half which sent Ava Seumanufagai over for his first try since joining Leeds in May.
Seumanufagai has been a solid signing and Leeds missed his go-forward when he was given a breather.
His return in the second half was important as London threatened to prise Leeds’ grip off the contest. Shortly before the interval Jack Walker supported a break by Brett Ferres and got past his opposite number and namesake, Alex, to score his seventh touchdown of the season.
At half-time it was Rhinos’ game to lose and for 27 minutes of the second period they made a good stab of doing just that.
They handed the home team, who have a habit of fighting back from hopeless positions against Leeds, a way back when Jack Walker’s pass was intercepted by the pacy Kieran Dixon who scorched the length of the field to score a try which he also converted.
From then on London grew in confidence and Leeds looked shaky. Only a knock-on by Rhys Williams over Leeds’ line prevented a second score, but Rhinos’ luck ran out when Konrad Hurrell shot out of the line looking for an interception, allowing Ryan Morgan to collect Brock Lamb’s pass and touch down unopposed.
Crucially, Dixon could not add the extras, but London looked the more threatening team until their discipline deserted them in the final 15 minutes.
They conceded an extra 10 metres for dissent after questioning a penalty against them and on the last tackle That gave Rhinos their first sustained attacking opportunity since the opening moments of the half and they made it count as Dwyer, Richie Myler and Hurrell moved the ball left and Handley finished strongly at the corner.
That try moved him one clear of Niall Evalds at the top of the Super League list, which is an impressive achievement for a relatively inexperienced winger in a struggling team.
Handley has been one of Leeds’ few success stories this year and recent signing Martin is another.
The Papua New Guinea international has made a positive impact in Rhinos’ pack and is the specialist goal kicker they have lacked since Kevin Sinfield retired in 2015. He converted all six of Leeds’ tries, but it was his kick from the touchline after Handley had crossed which put the game out of London’s reach. Leeds hit their stride after that, Walker adding his second try when he supported a break by Liam Sutcliffe.
That was against 12 men after Dixon had been penalised for holding down following a sensational tackle to deny Harry Newman. Dwyer went over from acting-half in the final moments and London finished two players short with Kear being shown a yellow card for dissent.
London Broncos: A Walker, Dixon, Morgan, Kear, Williams, Abdull, Lamb, Battye, Cunningham, Krasniqi, Pitts, Lovell, Yates. Subs Butler, Gee, Fozard, Mason.
Leeds Rhinos: J Walker, L Briscoe, Newman, Hurrell, Handley, Lui, Myler, Oledzki, Dwyer, Seumanufagai, Ferres, Martin, Merrin. Subs Cuthbertson, Donaldson, Smith, L Sutcliffe.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).