Leeds advance to playoff semi-finals after tempestuous win over Catalans

Having unexpectedly being thrust into the British sporting limelight on Friday evening, Leeds Rhinos did not disappoint. Two months ago they looked anything but a side capable of making the playoffs, let alone an 11th Super League Grand Final.

But, if history has taught us anything, it is that one writes this club off at one’s peril. Leeds are no strangers to winning Super League from as low as fifth, having done it twice already. But this, even by their standards, is some story they are writing. When Rohan Smith arrived at Headingley in May the Rhinos were genuine relegation contenders. Fast forward to the present day, with 12 wins in 17 games since, and Leeds, remarkably, are 80 minutes from the Grand Final in a fortnight’s time.

Here, on a day when no other British sporting side was in action, Leeds took centre stage in impressive fashion. They survived a tempestuous and fiery atmosphere in the south of France on and off the field to set up a semi-final with St Helens or Wigan next weekend. Leeds managed the occasion superbly, which is less than can be said for Catalans, who completely self-combusted on the biggest night of their season.

The Dragons received three yellow cards and one red following a litany of lapses in discipline. That meant they were never really able to pose too much of a threat to Leeds, with Liam Sutcliffe’s hat-trick ultimately proving enough to secure a safe passage to the semi-finals. “I thought we were very controlled,” Smith said. “We controlled the majority of the game despite the scoreboard. I’ve had a lot of belief in this group but we’ve still got a tough road to go through.”

The game was punctured at what felt like every juncture with stoppages. Most of them came after mêlées and flare-ups centrally involving Catalans players and after a scoreless opening quarter they received their first sin-binning when Mitchell Pearce caused an almighty bust-up. It would not be the last and, while Catalans kicked consecutive penalties to go 4-0 ahead while Pearce was off the field, indiscipline would prove their undoing.

“We didn’t play well enough, we didn’t produce playoff rugby,” the Catalans coach, Steve McNamara, said. “When you’re down to 12 men on two or three occasions, it’s not helping. But I think there’s a huge amount of frustration from our players and the frustration got the better of them.” Catalans were directing their frustration at the referee, James Child, who was on the end of near-constant attack from the home players and supporters all evening.

The Dragons were thus largely to blame for their demise here, though Leeds played their part too, epitomised by the two tries in the nine minutes approaching half-time from Sutcliffe. His first came via a break downfield from Richie Myler and his second try was courtesy of a pinpoint kick from Aidan Sezer. Zak Hardaker converted both to make it 12-4 in Leeds’ favour at the break.

When Catalans scored first after half-time through Dean Whare, the ascendancy looked to be with the Dragons. But the contest, and the Dragons’ discipline, soon reverted to type. Michael McIlorum was sin-binned for a high tackle having already received various warnings from Child and, while he was off the field, Sutcliffe completed his hat-trick after claiming another Sezer kick. Hardaker’s conversion restored their eight-point lead.

While eight points is far from insurmountable a deficit in rugby league, it is if one’s discipline is as poor as Catalans’ was here. As tempers boiled in the final minutes, and they conceded penalty after penalty, Gil Dudson was shown a straight red card for a headbutt on Sezer, which could rule him out of the World Cup with Wales. Then Pearce earned his second yellow in the dying seconds for dissent but by then the outcome had long been decided. Hardaker’s resulting penalty was just icing on the cake.

Catalans Tomkins; Davies, Langi, Whare, Yaha; Pearce, May; Seguier, McIlorum, Napa, Chan, McMeeken, Garcia. Interchange Dudson, Goudemand, Mourgue, Kasiano.

Leeds Myler; Briscoe, Hardaker, Sutcliffe, Tindall; Austin, Sezer; Oledzki, O’Connor, Prior, Bentley, Gannon, Smith. Interchange Leeming, Donaldson, Tetevano, Walters. Referee J Child.