As a nation mourned the passing of Her Majesty the Queen, the Catalans Dragons and Leeds Rhinos donned their black armbands, observed a minute’s silence, and took to the field in a subdued south of France for the first of the 2022 Super League playoff series games as fourth played fifth.
The Dragons were back at full strength after resting their entire squad last weekend against Wigan, and notably had Sam Tomkins back in their side at full back, their talisman returning. Leeds were without the suspended Rhyse Martin and Harry Newman wasn´t fit enough to make the seventeen, despite being named in the squad of twenty-one.
The Dragons were the clear favourites with the bookies but with the Rhinos only given an eight point start on the handicap coupon they thought it would be closer than many pundits as well as the more pessimistic Rhinos fans.
It was the third meeting between the two sides in France in the last six weeks with honours shared after the Rhinos clinched a Golden Point win in late July, the Dragons winning by 32-18 just twelve days ago.
Leeds went close on four minutes when Richie Myler broke through the Dragons defensive line and went to within thirty before putting in a cross-field kick for Zak Hardaker to chase. The Rhinos full back collected the ball ten out from the line but lost it under the tackle.
Aidan Sezer had a try ruled out on twelve minutes for a double movement despite the replays appearing to show momentum rather than any ball promotion by the Rhinos scrum half.
The opening quarter of an hour had been all Rhinos as they camped in the Dragons twenty but as the half wore on it was the home side who started to get some possession and position. But on twenty-three Mitchell Pearce was sin-binned for running in and escalating a confrontation. It was turning into a tasty encounter.
On twenty-five Sam Tomkins took advantage of a penalty for offside to kick a thirty-metre goal and open the games scoring. On the first play from the restart Morgan Gannon took a heavy hit and was taken from the field for a head impact assessment. Within minutes Joe Chan joined him after suffering friendly fire, the game was proving to be brutal.
On the half hour the Rhinos were again caught offside, and Tomkins ran down the clock as he added a second penalty goal, this one from forty metres, for a 4-0 lead.
On thirty-three the Rhinos were level with Liam Sutcliffe and Myler combining with a neat one-two over forty metres after Zane Tetevano did the earlier work to break down the Dragons defence. Zak Hardaker added the conversion from in front of the uprights for a 6-4 lead.
With a minute left on the clock the Rhinos got their second, again through Sutcliffe, as the Leeds centre collected a Myler cross field kick after Dean Whare was unable to gather. Hardaker was again accurate with the boot and the Rhinos took a deserved 12-4 lead into the sheds.
Just a minute of the second half had elapsed when Whare jumped to beat Sezer and catch a Pearce pinpoint kick and dot the ball down over the line after taking a single step. Tomkins added the conversion, and the Rhinos lead was cut to just two points.
A high tackle from Michael McIlorum on James Bentley saw the Dragons man sent to the Sin Bin and sitting out the next ten minutes, the Rhinos needed to take advantage and extend their lead as just two points separated the sides as the game moved into the last twenty.
On sixty-one Sutcliffe completed his hat-trick as he collected a Sezer cross field kick, with Whare providing minimal opposition, to dot the ball down over the line. Hardaker was again on target with the boot to put the Rhinos back into an eight-point lead.
Tomkins spilled a kick on sixty-eight but the Dragons defence held firm as they repelled their line but the clock was now becoming the home sides most dangerous enemy.
On seventy-four minutes Gil Dudson headbutted Aidan Sezer and was shown the red card by referee Child. The Dragons frustration and ill-discipline had cost them the game. The Catalans were totally rattled, their season was ending in disgrace.
Pearce was sin-binned for a second time on seventy-eight for shoulder charge, and with just a minute remaining on the clock Hardaker kicked the penalty goal for 20-10 to the Rhinos. The boo´s rang round the Stade Gilbert Brutus, their side well beaten as they self-destructed.
The Rhinos won against the odds as they played close on the perfect game to frustrate the Dragons and make progress into the semi-finals, to take on either Wigan or St Helens next weekend. Rohan Smith has been a breath of fresh air, are the Rhinos are certainly a side in the ascendancy after being real relegation prospects a few weeks into the season.
Catalans Dragons: Tomkins (3G), Yaha, Langi, Whare (T), Davies, May, Pearce (SB on 23 & 78), Seguier, McIlorum (SB on 59), Napa, McMeeken, Chan J, Garcia. Subs: Mourgue, Goudemand, Dudson (SO on 74), Kasiano.
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Tindall, Sutcliffe (3T), Hardaker (4G), Briscoe, Sezer, Austin, Oledzki, O´Connor, Prior, Gannon, Bentley, Smith. Subs: Walters, Leeming, Tetevano, Donaldson.
Score Progression: (SB), 2-0, 4-0, 4-4, 4-6, 4-10, 4-12 : HT : 8-12, 10-12, (SB), 10-16, 10-18, (SO), (SB), 10-20 : FT.
Lead Exchanges: Catalans – Leeds.
Referee: James Child.