Having unexpectedly burst onto the British sporting scene on Friday night, Leeds Rhinos did not disappoint. Two months ago, they looked anything but a team capable of making the play-offs, let alone an 11th Super League Grand Final.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that you delete this club at your peril. Leeds are no strangers to winning the Super League from fifth place, having done so twice already. But this, even by their own standards, is a story they are writing. When Rohan Smith arrived at Headingley in May, the Rhinos were genuine relegation contenders. Fast forward to today and 12 wins in 17 games later and Leeds are, incredibly, 80 minutes away from the Grand Final in a fortnight.
Here, on a day when no other British sporting side was in action, Leeds took center stage in impressive fashion. They survived a stormy and fiery atmosphere in the south of France on and off the pitch to set up a semi-final with St Helens or Wigan next weekend. Leeds handled the occasion admirably, which is less than can be said for the Catalans, who completely burned themselves on the biggest night of the season.
The Dragons received three yellow cards and one red after a series of disciplinary errors. This meant they were never really able to pose much of a threat to Leeds, with Liam Sutcliffe’s hat-trick eventually proving enough to secure a safe passage to the semi-finals. “I thought we were very controlled,” Smith said. “We controlled most of the game despite the score. I had a lot of faith in this team, but we still have a long way to go.”
The game had holed up at what felt like every juncture with a break. Most of them came after a melee and flurry involving the Catalans’ central players, and after a scoreless first quarter, they conceded their first sin when Mitchell Pearce produced a mighty upset. It would not be the last, and while the Catalans converted back-to-back penalties to go 4-0 up while Pearce was off the field, indiscipline would prove to be their undoing.
“We didn’t play well enough, we didn’t play play-off rugby,” Catalans manager Steve McNamara said. “When you’re 12 men in two or three situations, you don’t help. But I think there’s a huge amount of frustration from our players and their frustration got the best of them.” The Catalans took their frustration out on the referee, James Child, who was on the receiving end of a near-constant attack from the home team’s players and fans throughout the evening.
But the Dragons were to blame for their demise here. Of course Leeds also played their part, capped by two tries in the nine minutes approaching half-time from Sutcliffe. His first came via a break downfield by Richie Myler, while the second effort was courtesy of an accurate kick from Aidan Sezer. Zak Hardaker converted both to make it 12-4 to Leeds at the break.
When the Catalans scored first after half-time through Dean Whare, you felt the ascendancy was with the Dragons. But the contest, and the Dragons’ discipline, soon returned to typing. Michael McIlorum was dismissed for a high tackle having already received several cautions from Child and while he was off the field, Sutcliffe completed his hat-trick after claiming another Sezer kick. Hardaker’s conversion restored the eight-point lead.
And while eight points is far from an insurmountable deficit in rugby league, if your discipline is as poor as the Catalans were here. As tempers boiled over in the closing minutes, and they conceded penalty after penalty, Gil Dudson was shown a straight red card for a headbutt on Sezer, which could have ruled him out of the World Cup with Wales. Pearce then picked up his second yellow at two seconds for dissent, but by then, the outcome was already decided. Hardaker’s resulting penalty was just the icing on the cake.
Catalans Tomkins? Davies, Langi, Whare, Yaha; Pearce, May; Seguier, McIlorum, Napa, Chan, McMeeken, Garcia. Exchange Dudson, Goudemand, Mourgue, Kasiano.
Leeds Myler? Briscoe, Hardaker, Sutcliffe, Tindall; Austin, Sezer; Oledzki, O’Connor, Prior, Bentley, Gannon, Smith. Exchange Leeming, Donaldson, Tetevano, Walters. Referee J Child.