Leeds staged a dramatic late fightback to snatch a 14-8 victory over Castleford on the final day of the regular season to secure the last place in the Super League play-offs.
The Tigers were on course for a shock result when they led 8-0 after 72 minutes. But the Rhinos put a turgid hour behind them to score two tries in four minutes to clinch a victory that earns them a fifth-place finish and a trip to Catalans Dragons in next Friday’s eliminator.
Salford, who finish sixth after a home defeat by Warrington, will face a trip to Huddersfield in the second play-off tie at the John Smith’s Stadium next Saturday.
The outcome was tough on Castleford, who were a side transformed from the one that conceded 50 points in their home defeat by Salford five days earlier, but finish outside the top six in Lee Radford’s first season in charge.
The game was billed by Leeds as the most important fixture at Headingley since the 2017 Grand Final semi-final win over Hull but it hardly lived up to expectations as both sides produced a string of handling errors which blighted a first half devoid of points.
Leeds, boosted by the return of regular half-backs Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, dominated the opening exchanges without being able to find the finishing touches.
A ball steal by makeshift centre Rhyse Martin on Castleford winger Bureta Faraimo helped the Rhinos mount all the early pressure, which increased when full-back Jake Mamo fumbled the ball over his own dead-ball line.
But Leeds’ execution was dire. Not even the sin-binning of Castleford prop Suaia Matagi for a late hit on Mikolaj Oledzki helped them crack a hard-working defence.
Centre Liam Sutcliffe was held up over the line. Winger Ash Handley put down Richie Myler’s pass with a try beckoning.
The Tigers’ handling was also bordering on inept. But the introduction of youngsters Cain Robb and Sam Hall from the bench pepped up their attack; and centre Mahe Fonua was held up on the stroke of half-time.
HT: Leeds Rhinos 0-0 Castleford Tigers
PLAY-OFFS: Super League play-off schedule confirmed
It was a similar story for Leeds in the second half. Castleford managed to hang on to the ball long enough to finally cause their hosts some problems.
McShane broke the deadlock with a 52nd-minute penalty awarded for a ball steal on Fonua. Two minutes later Joe Westerman produced a superb pass to get Jake Mamo away for a try.
McShane’s conversion put his side two scores in front and the Rhinos’ last chance of victory appeared to have gone when Zak Hardaker, switched to the wing in place of an injured Ash Handley, lost the ball in Faraimo’s tackle with the tryline beckoning.
But Leeds were suddenly galvanised in the final quarter as their opponents began to tire.
When they were awarded a penalty for offside with eight minutes to, coach Rohan Smith sent on the message to kick for goal to bring them within range.
Martin duly obliged. He was also on target with the conversion after captain Kruise Leeming finished off a break by Hardaker to level the scores.
Greg Eden, a makeshift stand-off, was wide with a drop-goal attempt. That gave Leeds just enough time to produce a last-gasp attack, which produced handsome dividends. Myler took a return pass from Cameron Smith to send Sezer over for the winning try.
FT: Leeds Rhinos 14-8 Castleford Tigers
Leeds: Myler; Briscoe, Hardaker, Sutcliffe, Handley; Austin, Sezer; Oledzki, Leeming, Prior, Bentley, Martin, Tetevano. Subs: Dwyer, Smith, Gannon, O’Connor.
Tries: Leeming, Sezer Goals: Martin 3
Castleford: Mamo; Faraimo, Sutcliffe, Fonua, Olpherts; Eden, McShane; Griffin, Milner, Matagi, Lawler, Mellor, Westerman. Subs: Smith, Martin, Hall, Robb.
Tries: Mamo Goals: McShane 2