Leeds Rhinos paid the price for a poor first-half against Catalans Dragons as they fell to a fourteenth defeat in this year’s Super League. In a year when Leicester defied the odds to capture the Premier League having been languishing at the bottom of the table a year previously, the Rhinos are in danger of doing the reverse.
The omens for this match were not promising. Leeds went into the match with the most porous defence and least potent attack in the division. Catalans meanwhile were flying high, with the second-highest points tally in the league, as well as the second-meanest defence. Nevertheless, the negativity surrounding the club did not appear to be in evidence come eight o’clock on Friday evening, with a buoyant crowd ready to roar the team on in the sunshine.
Things started badly for the Rhinos when Keith Galloway had to go off with a shoulder injury after a hefty collision, to be replaced by German Jimmy Keinhorst, who has been one of the team’s most threatening attacking outlets of late.
Backed by the constant beat of the drum in the South Stand, the team regrouped, and after around seven minutes scored the first try of the match. After Keinhorst had been brought down, the ball was rolled back to Joel Moon, who drifted crossfield before feeding Brett Ferres, who evaded the attentions of a few Dragons defenders to go over, adding to the brace that he got in the previous match against Warrington. Jordan Lilley slotted home the conversion, and there was a real sense that the home side could secure their fourth win of the campaign.
The team initially seemed to be rectifying the mistakes that had blighted them throughout the season, with 25 tries conceded in their last three games alone. However, that defensive fragility resurfaced after 16 minutes, with Lucas Albert allowed to scamper through earlier in the move, with the eventual kick-through by Todd Carney just touched down in time by Justin Horo, who beat the flat-footed Luke Briscoe to the ball. Carney made the conversion to bring the scores level.
Catalans were starting to showcase their attacking flair and demonstrate their running ability, while a few handling errors were committed by Rhinos players. The crowd was also beginning to become disgruntled by the performance of Ben Thaler, with howls of ”offside!” punctuating the Headingley air, along with protestations about high tackling from the French side.
Around the half-hour mark, Catalans pressure paid dividends. Quick ball out to the left-wing found Fouad Yaha, and despite the close attentions of Lilley, Briscoe, Kallum Watkins and Liam Sutcliffe, they were unable to prevent the try, leaving questions to be asked of the Rhinos rearguard. The home team started to look increasingly vulnerable, and three minutes from half-time, the Dragons stretched their lead to double figures. Antoni Maria found himself in oceans of space in the centre and played the ball outside to Jason Baitieri, who breezed through the gap between Watkins and Sutcliffe. Boos began to ring out around the ground, with the beleaguered Rhinos appearing to be suffering from a chronic lack of confidence. The trumpet in the South Stand momentarily lost its sound, which seemed emblematic of the season as a whole. Despite a final flourish, last season’s treble winners could not add to their points tally before the half-time hooter, and went in 16-6 down.
Catalans had the better of the play at the beginning of the second period. They seemed better able to spread the play, whereas Leeds often seemed crowded out in key moments, and were unable to create space on the wings. The travelling fans were certainly enjoying their day out across the channel, enthusiastically applauding the attacking intent of their charges.
Leeds were however beginning to create more angles, with Moon darting out wide, but his spinning pass was agonisingly spilt forward, when a clean catch would have set the Rhinos free to score. Catalans then won a penalty, which Carney finished with ease.
This latest score did not deter Leeds from attacking, and in any case they had no other option. However, despite their good intentions, and the thunderous Mitch Garbutt (who was awarded the Rhinos MOTM award), they were not quick enough with ball in hand, and consequently could not fashion enough space to make their possession count.
On 69 minutes, their luck changed though. Sutcliffe’s kick was misjudged by a Catalans player who scurried back to retrieve it, and Briscoe snaffled up the loose ball and sprinted towards the Catalans line. He was brought down 20 metres from the line, but not before he had handed off to Josh Walters, who evaded capture, despite being set upon by Yaha and Jodie Broughton.
The kick was converted by the dependable Lilley and the Rhinos fans sensed a comeback. Every scrum won was met with roars from the crowd and furious gesticulating from the players, who were desperate to halt their poor run of form. Nearly every phase of play was positive, but it seemed to break down at the crucial moment.
The noise from the fans built to a crescendo when a Catalans error a few minutes from the death gave Leeds a set of six to draw level. However, the centre of the pitch became far too congested, and they were forced to retreat. This had calamitous consequences moments later. Joel Moon’s careless pass took a fatal bounce in front of Sutcliffe and Eloi Pelissier gleefully gobbled up the ball, sprinting away to ground to jubilant celebrations from Catalans players and fans alike, as many dismayed Loiners headed for the exits.
A match that could have quite easily been a draw ended in a 12-point defeat, underlining the fine margins in sport. Following the match, a clearly dejected Brian McDermott bemoaned the late try that was conceded, but praised his side for pretty much shutting out one of the league’s in-form teams in the second half. He also highlighted the contributions of Garbutt, Moon and youngster Sam Hallas, and felt that the team can take heart from the performance going into next week’s home clash with Salford Red Devils. The coach also acknowledged that, with six games to go, their hopes of finishing in the top eight were pretty much dashed, but felt that the majority of the fans had got right behind the team, despite the unexpectedly tough situation that has unfolded this season. He noted the tireless work done behind the scenes by the club staff and hierarchy, and that the key to improving was to get back on the training field and go again.
However, their poor form has been compounded by the news that Zak Hardaker has been transfer-listed after requesting a move to the NRL. Such off-field distractions come at an inopportune time, with a mounting injury list also restricting the Rhinos’ ability to surge up the table with Galloway, Rob Burrow and Adam Cuthbertson the most recent casualties. Salford aren’t as strong as Catalans, and if Leeds play with the same determination and cut out the defensive mistakes, they should be able to pick up the two points next time round.
All images courtesy of therhinos.co.uk