On the day of Super League’s resumption following a five-month COVID-inflicted postponement, Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos ensured the competition came back with the bang as they produced one of the games of the season at Emerald Headingley.
In a game played at a free-flowing high tempo, it was the Giants who dominated much of the West Yorkshire encounter and led 26-6 with just thirteen minutes remaining.
But the Rhinos never quite lost belief and produced one of the greatest comebacks of the Super League era, scoring four unanswered tries during the final twelve minutes of the match before veteran halfback Luke Gale slotted a long-range field goal in Golden Point territory to seal a memorable win for Leeds.
Defeat was very harsh on Huddersfield who had much the better of the field position and possession almost throughout the match, but Leeds’ ferocious fightback perhaps implies the extent of significance momentum has during a game due to the new set restart rule. It will be a challenge for coach Simon Woolford to ensure his side quickly put this agonising result behind them.
Promising stand-in winger Darnell McIntosh grabbed a hatrick including a scorching length of the field try. The 23-year-old showcased his speed and finishing ability in maintaining his good try-scoring record against Leeds. The other Huddersfield winger, also homegrown, Louis Senior is no slouch either and he came up with the other two tries for the Giants in the first half and second half respectively. His second try that made it 26-6 looked to have stamped out any hope of a Leeds comeback, unfortunately for his side that proved not to be the case.
Juggernaut centre Konrad Hurrell came up with Leeds’ first and final tries of the afternoon, both typically powerful finishes at the expense of multiple defenders.
Luke Gale dummied and fought his way over for Leeds’ second try, and Luke Briscoe produced an outstanding finish with ten minutes to go which got the Rhinos back into the match. Former Huddersfield man Alex Mellor was controversially adjudged to have grounded the ball with six minutes to go, coming three minutes before Hurrell’s trademark finish which goal-kicking second-rower Rhyse Martin crucially landed.
During Golden Point Lee Gaskell, who had a good game, narrowly missed with his drop goal attempt before Gale, under considerable pressure, made no mistake.
The Giants made the better start and took little time to make early pressure count, with young winger Louis Senior successfully chasing down Lee Gaskell’s close-range grubber kick to ground in the right corner. Sezer was unable to convert.
The Rhinos responded reasonably well and stand-in fullback Richie Myler looked certain to score but was denied by ex-Leeds man Golding who produced an impressive try-saving tackle to hold the former England International up over the line.
Leeds did manage to score however not long after and it was a good try too; Luke Gale made the initial line break before finding athletic back-rower Alex Mellor who managed to get an offload away to Handley who in turn found the rampaging Hurrell who could not be stopped powering his way over. Martin added the extras from the touchline to make it 4-6.
Huddersfield weren’t phased however and were the better side from that point onwards throughout the rest of the first half.
The Giants regained the lead on sixteen minutes as Ashton Golding produced a double-pump cut out pass to find Mclntosh who had enough space to dive over for his first try of the afternoon.
Huddersfield were beginning to control the ball significantly better than the Rhinos and they were also starting to get the better of Leeds in the rucks and wrestles.
Their superiority in the key departments was rewarded as Gaskell produced a magnificent cut-out pass to Mclntosh who had enough strength to fend away the tenacious Harry Newman to touch down. Sezer was unable to convert once again but did manage to land a penalty goal just before half-time, handing the Giants a deserved eight-point lead. 14-6.
Huddersfield were good value for their first half lead. Their slick, accurate and expansive ball movement was a contrast to the clunky, unthreatening attacking side they were last season and they gave themselves the right to play attacking rugby through winning the forwards battle and executing the basics of the game efficiently.
As for the Rhinos they completed sets at just 56% during the opening stanza and were perhaps slightly fortunate to only be eight points down. They knew they needed to improve in that critical area to have any chance of winning the game.
The Giants struck first in the second half during the 45th minute; Robert Lui’s stray pass was anticipated sharply by Darnell Mclntosh who had enough speed to outpace his opposite number Luke Briscoe to race the length of the field to complete his hatrick.
Leeds threatened to score on a couple of occasions after that as the likes of Harry Newman and Luke Gale both went close but Huddersfield were defending well in terms of both contact and structure.
It got even better for Huddersfield with nineteen minutes remaining when Ash Handley got somewhat harshly sin-binned. The long-striding winger intercepted O’Brien’s pass from the ruck but was adjudged to have been offside; he expressed his frustration by slamming the ball into the turf and appeared to use injudicious language. The intelligent Sezer exploited Handley’s absence in the resulting set, sending Senior over with a well-weighted cut-out pass for his second try of the match.
In the 68th minute during a set in Huddersfield’s twenty Luke Gale managed to exploit a slight overlap to dummy his way over, giving the Rhinos the glimmer of hope many spectators watching from home probably didn’t think much of at the time.
The Rhinos sensed a route back into the game and spread the ball out wide and Newman, covering the Wing for the sin-binned Handley, produced a burst of acceleration to break the line and from the resulting quick play-the-ball Leeds went from left to right and the ball eventually found its way to Luke Briscoe who produced both strength and agility to ride the first tackle before diving his way over. The understandably rushing Martin was unsuccessful with both conversion attempts but Leeds, now 26-14 down with ten minutes to play, had the momentum.
Huddersfield’s defensive discipline and ball control was deteriorating as the momentum in the match was clearly shifting and within a few minutes the Rhinos cut the deficit even further as former Huddersfield man Alex Mellor managed to wrestle his way through Ashton Golding’s desperate try-saving attempt to score.
Martin was successful this time with the conversion and the score was 26-20.
Leeds’ ball movement, line-running intensity and attacking execution was just too accurate and relentless for Huddersfield who were overlapped again and allowed Handley to make a break but his pass back on the inside to Myler, who would have been certain to score, was intercepted by Gaskell for what looked like a match-winning play.
During a frantic end-to-end finale Leeds, following a penalty conceded by Darnell Mclntosh, did manage to score the game-levelling try with two minutes remaining as the explosive Konrad Hurrell barged his way over for his second try following a well-timed pass from Richie Myler and Rhyse Martin was able to nail the conversion from wide out.
During Golden Point it was Huddersfield who got the first scoring opportunity, Sezer was closed down to the point of being forced to pass to Gaskell, the former St Helens and Bradford man didn’t quite get the distance or accuracy. Leeds made enough yardage in the ensuring seven tackle set and the experienced Gale made no mistake with his long-range field goal attempt that sparked wild celebrations and sealed one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Leeds came back from 26-6 down with just under thirteen minutes to go to eventually win 26-27 after Golden Point.
The result was immensely tough on the Giants who were superior in every department for the majority of the game. Their dominance in the forwards and improving attacking ball movement will come as little consolation but nevertheless they should take the positives of their performance in order to put the result itself behind them and therefore not allow it to affect their next game too much.
Leeds were abject for most of the encounter but displayed their quality, dangerous strike and never-say-die attitude as they somehow managed to win the game without playing well, always an encouraging sign particularly at this stage of the season and they will take plenty of momentum and confidence into their next match.