Leeds Rhinos saw off perennial Super League rivals St. Helens in a thrilling clash in front of 17,131 at Headingley Carnegie Stadium.
The Rhinos went into this match with just one win in their opening five games and were fresh off the back of a 28-6 drubbing at the home of 2015 Grand Final opponents Wigan. The team included a first start in eight months at home for Jamie Jones-Buchanan, and returns to the squad for Carl Ablett, Brett Delaney and Joel Moon.
The Saints had started this season brightly, and were spreading their tries around the team, with 13 different players having got in on the act so far this term.
Leeds’ poor form has been exemplified by their lack of attacking verve, but it was on show today in a blistering ten-minute spell at the beginning of the match, epitomised by the superb wing play of both Zak Hardaker and Ash Handley. Handley enjoys playing St. Helens, having scored hat-tricks in both outings against the Merseysiders in the regular 2015 season. The 19-year-old right-winger had an instrumental part to play in the opening try, intercepting an attempted kick-through and driving at the Saints defence. He was held up, but the ball was recycled, with Jones-Buchanan receiving an incisive offload by Keith Galloway before powering over on his 300th appearance for the club.
Following a Liam Sutcliffe conversion, the Rhinos rumbled on, and soon after the first try the advantage was doubled. Beau Falloon was at the heart of much of the good play that the team mustered, and he was on hand to deliver the telling pass to Adam Cuthbertson, who went over between the posts despite the close attentions of two defenders. The Rhinos’ fans were in dreamland and it was not long before the team had stretched further ahead. More sloppy play from Keiron Cunningham’s side saw Kallum Watkins get his hand to a misplaced Saints pass, which Liam Sutcliffe profited from, slicing through for an emphatic finish. Although he couldn’t make it a hat-trick of conversions, the stand-off had been an pivotal presence in the opening exchanges.
However, the tide started to turn in what was a crazy first half. A threatening set of six just after the third try of the match signalled the Saints’ intent, and shortly after that they had cut the deficit, with Kyle Amor neatly sidestepping Hardaker before diving for the line. Despite that lift, the visitors were still not finding their range with their kicking in open play. However, with ball in hand they were starting to play with real zip, and a neat move saw goal-kicker Luke Walsh pick the lock following a concerted spell of pressure following a neat dummy. The home crowd were now getting agitated, while the travelling supporters chanted ‘‘you’re not singing any more’’ to their West Yorkshire adversaries. Both sides were playing a speedy, expansive style of rugby, but it was the Saints who were now capitalising on mistakes, as a game of pinball broke out inside the Rhinos’ 22, with nervousness setting in among a group of players not used to such a sticky run of form.
Although the team continued to attack, the seeming lack of runners from deep was frustrating the home faithful, who were sensing a dramatic turnaround, and sure enough this transpired. Walsh was again at the heart of the move, with Louie McCarthy Scarsbrook latching onto his pass and dancing through.
Then the Rhinos revival kicked into gear. The half had looked to be petering out, but the tricky second-row Ablett was on hand following Rob Burrow’s cute pass to fight off the challenges of a few St. Helens players and sprint to the line. Given the low-scoring performances that have been a feature of the beginning of the season, this was a welcome return to the flair play that so captivated the league during vast swathes of last season.
The second half was by contrast a more disjointed affair. The tempo in the first 40 minutes had been unrelenting and both teams would have been forgiven for feeling shattered. The game was re-ignited by a scintillating passage of play that saw the tireless Handley haul down a St. Helens runner with the line in sight. Shortly after, Ablett went scampering into enemy territory before feeding Watkins, who you would have fancied to finish off the move. However, he was caught just a few metres away from glory. The move got the crowd off their seats though, and it was not long before they were up celebrating a fifth and final Rhinos try. Falloon, who had been industrious all evening, produced an impudent kick through, and the energetic Handley pounced, grasping and grounding the ball to roars from the Headingley crowd.
With less than 25 minutes of the match remaining, the match became a bit more of a bitty affair, with a few flare-ups on the pitch and disgruntled supporters venting their spleen at referee Ben Thaler for what they felt were blatant offside claims against St. Helens players. Another Sutcliffe penalty put the game to bed with roughly ten minutes to go, before Jones-Buchanan came off to a rapturous reception. The 34-year-old is a popular figure in these parts and having been out for so long is starting to show signs that he can recapture the form that made him such an important part of this team.
There was still time for one meaningful chance for either side. A St. Helens breakaway led to an advantageous attacking position, but they failed to make the most of it, passing into the more congested part of the field and therefore the chance was snuffed out. Following this, man of the match Handley attempted a kick-chase in the dying moments, but he was held up just short.
This game was certainly the Rhinos’ most dominant performance of the season. The departures of Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai have certainly hit hard, but the new acquisitions, returning faces and youthful replacements can certainly fill the breach.
All images courtesy of Paul Greenwood at the Daily Mail