Last Updated: 14/09/18 11:19pm
Liam Sutcliffe held his nerve to kick a penalty on the full-time hooter as Leeds took a huge step towards retaining their Super League status with an 18-16 victory over Salford.
On a day when the Super 8s were axed in favour of a return to the traditional one-up, one-down system of promotion and relegation, the tension was palpable as both teams dared not lose.
But it was the Rhinos who edged it to inflict a first Qualifiers defeat on the Red Devils and leave the champions on the brink of retaining their place in Super League.
Leeds held a slender half-time advantage thanks to tries from Tom Briscoe and Jimmy Keinhorst either side of Niall Evalds’ effort.
Greg Burke levelled the scores while Brett Ferres was in the sin-bin and Derrell Olpherts cancelled out Briscoe’s second try to set up a dramatic finale.
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Salford survived early pressure but fell behind in the eighth minute when Briscoe finished out wide from Jack Walker’s classy offload after Dom Crosby’s break had taken Leeds deep into Red Devils territory.
The early try did little to dent Salford’s confidence and they were quickly back level, Evalds going over in the corner at the end of a slick move orchestrated by makeshift half-back pair Rob Lui and Josh Wood.
Salford’s new-found belief was tested as the Rhinos laid siege to their line and, after repelling everything Leeds had to throw at them, it seemed they would take control of the contest.
Yet just as the Red Devils were getting on top, Sutcliffe made a break from deep inside his own half and Keinhorst raced clear to edge the Rhinos back in front on the stroke of half-time.
Leeds made a strong start to the second half but their lead was under threat after Luke Briscoe spilled the ball from Walker’s risky pass on a kick return.
The home faithful breathed a sigh of relief when Ed Chamberlain knocked on going for the line and were soon cheering when Sutcliffe knocked over his first goal of the night after Salford were penalised for interference.
But, as on so many occasions at Headingley this year, Leeds could not put their opponents away and Ferres gave Salford a route back into the game when he was sin-binned for a crusher tackle.
Burke punished the Leeds back-rower by crashing over from close range and Chamberlain added the extras to make it 10-10.
Richie Myler’s try-saving tackle on Lui ensured Ferres returned to the field with the Rhinos level and within seconds of his reintroduction Leeds stunned Salford. Sutcliffe sent Tom Briscoe clear with a nice flat pass and there was no stopping the former England winger.
Sutcliffe added the extras from out wide, but back came the Red Devils and they set up a grandstand finish when Olpherts dived over in the corner with Leeds scrambling on the last tackle and Chamberlain made no mistake with his touchline conversion.
Driving rain only added to the drama as both teams sought a winning score.
Lui had a drop-goal attempt brilliantly charged down before Sutcliffe kept his cool after Salford were penalised for a ball strip 20 metres out.