Friday 13th would turn out to be a unlucky one for either the Catalans Dragons or the Leeds Rhinos as the two went head to head in the play-offs to compete for the dubious honour of a trip to the Totally Wicked Stadium next Friday night to take on St Helens.
Despite ending the ‘irregular’ regular season in fourth place, the Dragons had already been disadvantaged by having to make the trip to Warrington’s Halliwell-Jones Stadium for the match due to Covid concerns, the Rhinos making the simple trip across the Pennines, albeit on a Friday night.
Both coaches, Rhino’s Richard Agar in absentia due to enforced coronavirus self-isolation, named strong sides with the bookies having difficulty separating the two and giving slight favourites odds to the Rhinos who were giving away a two-point start on the handicap coupon.
Sam Tomkins broke the Leeds line on his own thirty, with under a minute on the clock, and broke to close to the Leeds line before finding the supporting Tom Davies to complete the last twenty metres for the opening score. James Maloney hit the target from the touchline for a dream start for the Dragons.
The second try came on seven minutes, the Leeds defence at sixes and sevens as Samisoni Langi got his hand on a Sam Tomkins grubber kick with the defenders flailing. Maloney added the conversion for a 12-0 lead, the Rhinos shell-shocked.
The game was being played at one hundred miles an hour. Both sides spurned chances for tries, and the video referee was twice called to make judgements, before Israel Folau chased a high kick from Tomkins and collected under pressure from two Leeds tacklers before spinning over the line and getting the ball on the ground. Maloney grazed the far post in kicking his third of the game for an 18-0 lead after thirty-one minutes.
Leeds opened their account on thirty-five when a neat passage of short passes, started by Like Gale and finished by Alex Sutcliffe who took the Gale pass twenty metres out in space to go over. Rhyse Martin added the conversion for a Rhinos lifeline score.
Leeds were outplayed for the majority of the half by a superb Dragons performance, and lost both Seumanufagai and Oledzki to head tests, but they scrambled a try at the end of the half to give themselves a chance on the second forty.
Seven minutes after the restart, and following a David Mead mistake for the Dragons, the Rhinos used their tackles and on the fourth tackle and long ball from Gale found Matt Prior, who in turn passed to Tom Briscoe to slide over in the corner. Martin was wide of the upright with his touchline conversion attempt, the Rhinos still eight adrift but the Dragons nerves were now jangling.
As the half wore on it was the Dragons who seemed to be running out of steam and turning to niggle to wind the Rhinos up.
But on sixty-two, Robert Lui threw a wayward ball to David Mead who shrugged off the Konrad Hurrell pass and went down the wing for the easiest of tries. Maloney added the conversion to put one Dragons foot in the semi-final.
On sixty -six the Rhinos kept the ball alive on the last and moved it from the centre to the left and then all the way back to the right and into the hands of Konrad Hurrell to walk over in acres of space for the third Leeds try. Martin was again unable to add the conversion, the Rhinos trailing by ten points.
When Leeds stole the ball on their own forty with seventy-two on the clock, Maloney kicked the penalty goal to extend the lead to twelve points.
All credit to the Dragons who came with a game plan and executed it to perfection. They blitzed the Rhinos early on to canter into a lead and then set about battering the Rhinos and stifling any creativity which they tried to show. There is no doubting that the Dragons pack contains plenty of big lads who are happy to dish it out and Saints won’t be looking forward to their encounter with the French side next Friday, a Grand Final berth at stake.
The Rhinos, they will have to console themselves with the memories of their Challenge Cup win.
Catalans Dragons: Tomkins S, Mead (T), Langi (T), Folau (T), Davies (T), Drinkwater, Maloney (5G), Bousquet, McIlorum, Casty, Tomkins J, Whitley, Garcia. Subs: Moa, Seguier, Baitieri, Kasiano.
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Handley, Sutcliffe L, Hurrell (T), Briscoe T, Gale, Lui, Seumanufagai, Leeming, Oledzki, Thompson, Martin (G), Prior. Subs: Sutcliffe A (T), Dwyer, Smith, Donaldson
Referee: Chris Kendall.
Half Time: 18-6.
Full Time: 26-14.
Venue: Halliwell-Jones Stadium, Warrington.