Leeds Rhinos finally got off the mark in the 2016 Super League side with a hard-fought 20-16 win against Huddersfield Giants. The two sides came into this match propping up the division, which was surprising given that they had finished the 2015 Super 8s campaign in first and third respectively.
Rain and driving wind made for an atmospheric build-up, but the opening few minutes of the match were devoid of incident. Leeds dominated territory early on, but Huddersfield reminded the Rhinos of their attacking prowess, with 2015’s top try-scorer Jermaine McGillvary breaking dangerously in the fourth minute. However, a kick over the top of the Leeds defence later on in the move was kicked into touch.
The breakthrough for Leeds came on eight minutes. A kick over the top of the Huddersfield rearguard was caught by a leaping Ryan Hall, and he chucked the ball down to the waiting Joel Moon, who juggled the ball before going over. Leeds’ struggles this season can be explained by both the exodus of influential trio Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, as well as the raft of injuries to key players including Danny McGuire and Tom Briscoe in the opening games of this campaign. However, one of the players to have benefited from a consistent place in the starting XIII is 19-year-old Jordan Lilley. He showed superb composure to slot home the conversion from the touchline by the main stand, putting his side 6-0 in front.
The game was starting to open up a bit more, and the referee Richard Silverwood was the subject of some vitriol after what it was felt that the official had made a few questionable calls in favour of the visitors. It wasn’t long before the Giants were level. The Leeds wall looked to be doing its job, but Captain Danny Brough spotted a gap and swooped home, with a successful conversion from Jamie Foster levelling the scores. The away side had a spring in their step, playing with increasing verve and potency, and the Rhinos did well to keep them at bay. However, the unrelenting pressure eventually took its toll on the hosts, with Hall this time culpable, as he fumbled a probing crossfield kick, and McGillvary was waiting on the wing to take the ball and dive over. As half-time approached, the crowd were becoming increasingly agitated, as Huddersfield remained resolute.
The second period saw the introduction of German Jimmy Keinhorst in place of try-scorer Moon, who went off nursing an injury. Leeds came out with renewed energy, and Kallum Watkins’ pass almost found its intended target close to the try-line, but the chance was snuffed out. Huddersfield had chances of their own, but the lack of a killer instinct epitomised the ailing fortunes of both clubs at this stage of the campaign. Many in the crowd will have been forgiven for thinking that the Rhinos were set to go down to their fifth straight defeat in all competitions.
Then came the breakthrough that the home fans had been craving. With 21 minutes remaining, Prop Adam Cuthbertson fed the ball to Liam Sutcliffe. There appeared to be nothing on, but the loose forward spotted a gap and scurried through to go over in front of the disappointed away contingent, with the ever-reliable Lilley slotting home to make it 12-12.
Huddersfield however seemed unfazed by this setback, and after Hall spilt a regulation catch forward, Michael Lawrence went over on the fourth phase of play, despite the close attentions of Ash Handley. Handley had to leave the field shortly afterwards; yet another injury worry for Coach Brian McDermott to contend with. Despite the missed conversion from Foster, doubts must have been creeping into the players’ minds that this game would have a similar storyline to the opening-day encounter against Warrington Wolves. Leeds continued to push and probe, and it was a bit of ingenuity (and a touch of controversy) that saw them back in contention. Lilley, arguably the Rhinos’ man of the match, found himself in space around 15 yards from the opposition try-line, and, spotting Keinhorst in his peripheral vision, played a cute kick through the defence for the second row to chase. Stretching every sinew, he dived desperately and managed to get his little finger to the ball. It was initially felt that the ball had not been grounded, but the television official felt differently, sparking wild celebrations all around the ground, and leaving the Huddersfield players understandably aggrieved over what was a debatable decision.
Lilley once again stepped up to the plate, as Leeds edged themselves in front with ten minutes remaining. In the closing stages, they solidified their advantage with a penalty kick from the same man.
Despite a tense last few minutes, the Rhinos hung on for what was a priceless three points. The scoreline was identical to the last time the two teams met, when a dramatic breakaway try from Hall secured the league leaders’ shield for his team in the dying moments of the season. Although the circumstances of this win were considerably less dramatic, it could be the win that propels them up the table.
In the post-match press conference, Brian McDermott rejected the idea that anxiety played its part in what he felt was an unsatisfactory performance by his team, which he put down to desperation. However, he did reserve praise for the team defensively.
Speaking to The Gryphon, Brett Ferres said that getting the right structures in place on the training ground had been instrumental in the victory, and also praised the contributions of Lilley, whose eight-point haul and cool assist for Keinhorst’s controversial try spoke volumes about his composure and ability at such a young age. The second row also remarked that it was nice to face his old club, where his form saw him become a regular fixture in the England side. However, when asked about a possible title challenge, he answered with caution, saying that it was difficult to assess the potential of the side with the season just a few games old, but that the team will keep pushing and will look to string together a run of victories. Chances of silverware are probably most likely in the Challenge Cup, but in the meantime, the focus is very much on building on Friday’s encouraging result, if not the performance.