Twelve months ago to the day Leeds Rhinos produced one of the outstanding displays of the season in beating St Helens 46-18 to suggest that their destination was the Super League Grand Final. The contrast in their fortunes between then and now could not be starker as they face up to the prospect of a battle to avoid relegation in the qualifiers.
This defeat came after back-to-back wins for the first time in 2016 had sparked talk of an unlikely run to the top eight but that was never on the cards for a side who pale beside the team that won the Super League title last year.
The whole of Leeds’s season was encapsulated in this match. There were hope and optimism when they led by 12 points midway through the second half but that turned into frustration when Widnes fought back strongly to level the game late on and, in a tense finish, win it.
Leeds’ lack of ruthlessness again proved costly – as it has many times this year – when they failed to land what would have been a game-winning drop goal before Joe Mellor’s one-pointer two minutes from time for Widnes sealed their fate.
It was a spectacular collapse on an afternoon when victory was vital. “This is a dent to our pride without doubt,” Brian McDermott, the Leeds coach, said. “We’ve got to ensure we go into the qualifiers in the best shape possible. Everyone’s highly disappointed but I actually thought that was a good performance.” To McDermott’s credit Leeds were much improved in the opening hour before the Widnes revival and the significance of this defeat for the home side should not overshadow an equally important result for the Vikings.
The win means Widnes are now all but sure of a top-eight finish and, although Salford’s appeal hearing this week against a six-point deduction for breaching the salary cap in 2014 and 2015 could change that, it would still take a remarkable swing in results for them to fall into the bottom four.
“It’s a fantastic achievement for this group,” Denis Betts, the Widnes coach, said. “We started like a house on fire this year but we’ve stuck at it when things got tough and we can now look forwards instead of back.”
Widnes fought back from 12 points down on two separate occasions. Helped by Mellor’s try on the stroke of half-time they managed to claw back the first-half deficit sufficiently to go in trailing only 16-10. Leeds then moved 22-10 ahead thanks to Mitch Garbutt’s try just after the break.
However, when the influential Kevin Brown – again the best player for Widnes, as he has been so often this year – fired a pass out wide for Patrick Ah Van to cross, the Vikings’ refusal to submit began to cause panic among Leeds, something McDermott openly admitted afterwards.
On three occasions the Rhinos wasted opportunities to go further ahead and, after Rhys Hanbury scored and converted to make it 22-22, Mellor broke Leeds’ hearts and secured a first win at Headingley since 2002. Betts said: “Guts and determination have not been missing out of this side for a long, long time. We showed resilience to fight back and we had the ability to win the game.”
Last year it was Wembley and Old Trafford for the all-conquering Rhinos: this year it may well be trips to such places as Batley and Halifax in the fight to avoid the drop. This has been an unusual 12 months for Leeds – and the drama is a long way from being over yet.
Leeds Sutcliffe; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; McGuire, Burrow; Galloway, Jones-Buchanan, Garbutt, Ferres, Achurch, Singleton. Interchange Cuthbertson, Golding, Ablett, Keinhorst.
Tries Watkins, Hall, Moon, Garbutt. Goals Sutcliffe 3.
Widnes Hanbury; Thompson, Runciman, Marsh, Ah Van; Mellor, Brown; Cahill, White, Buchanan, Houston, Dean, Leuluai. Interchange Dudson, Heremaia, Manuokafoa, Whitley.
Tries Thompson, Mellor, Ah Van, Hanbury. Goals Hanbury 3. Drop goal Mellor.
Referee B Thaler (RFL). Attendance 16,130.
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