In arguably the toughest trip that Celtic Crusaders will have to make all season, the Welsh side went out of the Carnegie Challenge Cup to Leeds Rhinos but were by no means disgraced as they lost 38-16.
The Crusaders can be proud of the fact that they managed to perform better than Super League sides Wakefield, Harlequins and Bradford, all of whom conceded over 44 points in games against the World Champions this season.
Rhinos took the lead on ten minutes. Danny McGuire fed Ben Jones-Bishop and it took as try-saving tackle by Paul Ballard to prevent a dream debut for the full-back. And from the next play, the ball was worked out to Lee Smith who grounded in the corner.
The second try followed just three minutes later as Scott Donald scored in the other corner.
Crusaders attacked and attempted to get a try back. Near to the line on the fifth tackle, Neil Budworth made a cheeky grubber, but the ball, aimed for Mark Dalle Cort, was blocked.
It was 14-0 on 21 minutes. Keith Senior sold a dummy and laid the ball off to Rob Burrow who sprinted through the created gap to score under the sticks. Super League’s top goal scorer, Kevin Sinfield converted.
Crusaders didn’t give up and made efforts to get their first points on the board. Jace Van Dijk and Aaron Summers both made hopeful grubber kicks on the final tackle of consecutive completed sets but while they had the vision, there were no Crusaders players able to pounce on the ball on either occasion.
They were finally rewarded in the 29th minute. Jordan James was stopped five metres from the line and from the next play, Anthony Blackwood was in position and got onto the end of a fine passing move to force his way over in the corner.
The Welsh side’s game-plan seemed to be to keep the ball in play as much as possible, keep up the passing and not get tackled. This criteria, reminiscent of Wales’ spirited attempts against Australia in the 2000 World Cup, was successful for them again on 36 minutes when Anthony Blackwood once again scored in the corner following excellent work from Jace Van Dijk and Mark Dalle Cort. Lennon converted and the Crusaders were just four points behind at the interval.
Rhinos scored their first try of the second half after just three minutes when McGuire slipped the ball to Matt Diskin. Sinfield easily added the extras.
Paul Ballard made a strong run for the line in an attempt for another try back for the Crusaders and it took two Rhinos men to stop him from grounding.
However Leeds extended their lead on 54 minutes. A couple of quick breaks from Jones-Bishop and Burrow made the metres and McGuire went in near to the corner. Sinfield converted again.
Kallum Watkins put the icing on an impressive debut by scoring Leeds’ next try with Sinfield adding the extras.
If was definitely all over for the gallant Crusaders on 69 minutes when Senior went over after being set up by McGuire.
Crusaders still didn’t give up. Gareth Dean was denied a consolation try when he was held up over the line but from the next play, Mark Dalle Cort made no mistake as he forced his way over. Lennon converted.
The Welsh side could have finished with over 20 points but Blackwood was denied a hat-trick of tries after he was held up over the line with just two minutes to go.
Crusaders may have finished up on the losing side but they went off the field to a round of applause for their efforts.
Commenting on the Crusaders, Leeds’ coach Brian McLennan said: “They were good, they played really well and I was really impressed. They’ve got a good coach, a good structure and ten minutes before half-time they had us struggling. They were very well organized and on their day, they could knock out a big club and that’s what got us worried. We respected them at the start, we knew they’d be tough and they never surprised us, they did really well.”
Crusaders’ coach John Dixon added: “It was nice to come today and play as well as we did and that’s what I hoped would happen. Tonight showed that we can compete with the best. Congratulations to the Rhinos, they did a really good job in the second half but at half-time we almost had the smell of something. A lot of sides could have got beaten by 50 or 60 after the good start that Leeds had but I was pleased that our fitness and shape stood up and we were competing really well right up to the end and probably asking more questions that the Rhinos in the last five minutes.”
LEEDS RHINOS: 34. Ben Jones-Bishop, 2. Scott Donald, 32. Kallum Watkins, 4. Keith Senior, 5. Lee Smith, 6. Danny McGuire, 7. Rob Burrow, 8. Kylie Leuluai, 9. Matt Diskin, 17. Nick Scruton, 10. Jamie Peacock, 19. Carl Ablett, 13. Kevin Sinfield. Subs: 23. Danny Allen, 24. Luke Burgess, 25. Danny Allan, 26. Ben Kaye.
Tries: Smith (10), Donald (13), Burrow (21), Diskin (43), McGuire (54), Watkins (63), Senior (69)
Goals: Sinfield 4/6, Burrow 1/1
CELTIC CRUSADERS: 1. Mark Lennon, 2. Paul Ballard, 3. Josh Hannay, 4. Mark Dalle Cort, 5. Anthony Blackwood, 6. Damien Quinn, 7. Jace Van Dijk, 8. Jordan James, 9. Neil Budworth, 10. Gareth Dean, 11. Chris Beasley, 12. Darren Mapp, 13. Neale Wyatt. Subs: 14. Ian Webster, 15. Aaron Summers, 16. Jamie I’Anson, 17. David Tangata-Toa.
Tries: Blackwood (29, 36), Dalle Cort (74)
Goals: Lennon 2/3
Referee: Phil Bentham