What looked like being a comfortable win became yet another nail-biter as Leeds’s frailty when they get into what should be a decisive lead was again exposed.
Leeds had the first chance when Ash Handley made a break from Joel Moon’s pass, but Widnes scrambled back well.
It was a muscular start from both teams and sheer power almost took Greg Burke over the line on seven minutes, but Jack Walker proved his defensive qualities with a super tackle to halt the big prop just short.
Matt Parcell had an opportunity from Kallum Watkins’s pass, but Rhys Hanbury made a try saving tackle.
Leeds turned the ball over near Widnes’s line and Lloyd White split Rhinos down the middle with Charly Runciman in support.
Ashton Golding came across from his wing to stop Runciman and made another vital tackle when the ball was offloaded to Hanbury.
He took too long to get off and was sin-binned for a professional foul. Widnes opted not to take the two and some terrific defence kept them out, then Rhinos scored on the counter.
Richie Myler’s kick rebounded off a defender and was picked up by Anthony Mullally who immediately shipped the ball on to Walker.
He raced towards the line and then hurled out a long pass which Tom Briscoe collected to cross at the corner.
With Carl Ablett down in back play, Watkins had to wait a while to take the conversion and his kick was off target.
Leeds had an escape on 21 minutes when Tom Gilmore chipped over the defence to Rhinos’ left, exploiting the gap left by Golding’s yellow card and Ryan Ince picked up to race over, only for the touchdown to be ruled out for offside.
Rhinos, therefore, survived Golding’s sin-binning intact and scored again within seconds of his return, Stevie Ward breaking through and slipping a well-timed pass back to Myler who crossed unopposed.
Watkins added the extras, but Cuthbertson knocked on on the first play from the restart and Widnes scored following the scrum, Matty Whitley charging over after Aaron Heremaia and Hanbury shifted the ball to the hosts’ left.
There was no conversion and Leeds scored the only other point of the half. With three minutes left a Widnes error handed them possession inside the hosts’ half and – to the surprise and amusement of everyone in the away end – Myler landed a perfect drop goal to open a two-score gap. It was Leeds’ first of the season – after they had conceded six – and only the second one-pointer of Myler’s career.
He was given a standing ovation when he got into position for the restart.
It could have been better for Leeds, but for some excellent defence from Widnes to keep Parcell and Jamie Jones-Buchanan out in the final seconds.
Rhinos did increase their lead four minutes into the second half, with a high-quality try. Moon jinked into a gap and passed over the top to Ash Handley.
He ran towards the corner and slipped out a superb pass to Golding and Watkins iced the cake with a brilliant conversion.
In the next set Handley, having his best game for several weeks, dashed clear and would have scored but for Gilmore’s ankle tap.
But Myler took the defence on on the final tackle, fed Ward and he twisted over powerfully for his first try of the season.
The conversion made it 23-4, but the old failing resurfaced. This time it was a penalty in the set from the restart, for not playing the ball properly, rather than an error but the effect was the same.
The impressive Whitley went over from close-range and Gilmore added the conversion to cut the gap tio 13 points with 30 minutes left.
A penalty against Brett Ferres led to Alex Gerrard going over and then Walker dropped a kick and Runciman crossed on the final play.
Gilmore converted the third and fourth tries to cut Leeds’s lead to three points and they turned down an easy two from a penalty in front of the post with 15 minutes to play, which proved the value of the one-pointer.
Rhinos held on under huge pressure, but more by luck and good judgment.
Widnes Vikings: Hanbury, Ince, Runciman, Chamberlain, Marsh, Gilmore, Heremaia, Gerrard, White, Burke, Whitley, Wilde, Cahill. Substitutes: Leuluai, Olbison, Wellington, Johnstone.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker, Briscoe, Watkins, Handley, Golding, Moon, Myler, Oledzki, Parcell, Cuthbertson, Ablett, Ward, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Peteru, Mullally, Dwyer, Ferres.
Referee: Greg Dolan (RFL).