Two tries in as many minutes for youngster Zak Hardaker in the last eight minutes brought Catalans five game unbeaten run to an almighty halt.
The dual-registered Featherstone Rover made it three tries in only two Super League appearances for the former champions, his final try coming courtesy of a sublime crossfield kick by captain Kevin Sinfield, who was instrumental for the Rhinos throughout.
Leeds dominated the first half though a Ryan Hall try, 20 minutes in, was the only thing separating the two teams at the interval.
The second half began in an error-strewn manner with both sides coughing up position simultaneously and it took until the quarter hour mark for Leeds to extend their lead.
The hosts were on top but failed to kick on allowing Dragons back in with a soft try to say the least. Credit to the Rhinos however, they got back on the horse and punished the travelling Dragons with three late tries.
Leeds boss Brian McDermott recognised his side’s improving defence whilst paying credit to the injury hit Catalans.
He said: “I’d say that’s the toughest Catalans team, and I’m not talking about fighting or head high shots, toughness as in a disciplined team that I’ve seen for a while.
“They don’t go away and they don’t get lazy around the ruck. Their goal line defence is very hard to break down.
“I can only think of two blunders in defence. One of them led up to the try and sitting here at full-time, I’d say we’ve done pretty well if that is the case.”
The Dragons night was marred by injury before and after full-time. They arrived to the Headingley without the headline grabbing Scott Dureau and his absence proved costly in attack. They appeared like a Hull KR side without their starlet, Michael Dobson.
Sa stepped up to take the place of Dureau but alongside the out of form Thomas Bosc, Trent Robinson’s plan failed to come into fruition, as the Kiwi limped off with a hamstring injury.
A bitterly disappointed Robinson said: “I thought we deserved better because I thought we stuck it to them. Our attack cost us in the end even though they scored the points against our defence.
“The way we attacked and the questions we didn’t ask got us in the end. They did us in the last 10 minutes with some nice footy.
“We had a few guys out tonight and we’re starting to rack up a list of people that aren’t available.
The Dragons defensive woes were only display straight from off when Sinfield’s kick-off was allowed to bobble into touch. Luckily for the Dragons, Leeds were kept at bay.
It was end to end stuff after the initial scare though it always seemed Leeds were in the ascendancy. The Rhinos could and should have had two tries on the board and a sense of frustration was beginning to rise amongst the South Stand faithful.
The home side persisted and were eventually awarded for their patience on 21 minutes thanks a superb, delayed miss pass from Sinfield to Hall, who dived over in the corner. Sinfield added the extras from a difficult angle and with the deadlock broken, the Rhinos were ahead.
Leeds failed to add to their initial try and if anything Catalans looked the more dangerous side with Sa and Ian Henderson threatening the line on countless occasions. Their first real opportunity came in the closing minutes of the first half via a drop-out but McDermott’s men stood firm and maintained their whitewash first half scoreline.
The opening minutes of the second half offered little in terms of a spectacle and it wasn’t until the 52nd minute before any sort of action occurred. When it did it was that man Sinfield again, the loose forward provided a perfect flat ball for Exiles select Kylie Leuluai to go under the posts.
The Rhinos had their tails up and were beginning to look like the Rhinos of old. Burrow was wreaking havoc in the Catalans line and a further break from Hall appeared to lay the foundations for another assault on the try line.
To the dismay of the home crowd, Leeds lost possession and then gave away repeat penalties. Catalans came at them and finally got their first points with just under an hour played when hooker Henderson went over from dummy half.
Game on perhaps? Any thought of that was quickly wiped out only three minutes later, following a Sinfield penalty goal, when Hardaker backed up well to finish off a Carl Ablett break. Sinfield missed the conversion from the touchline but it wasn’t going to make a difference.
Matters worsened for the Dragons when Sa was withdrawn from proceedings. Henderson shifted to scrum-half and it seemed to have a damaging effect as Leeds shifted into top gear.
Sinfield, who was almost toying with the French defence by this stage, hammered a crossfield bomb towards the near touchline, the ball sat up perfectly for Hardaker to collect and he raced away under the sticks. The try sent the crowd into raptures, well held by the young winger but truly unbelievable play from Sinfield.
With four minute left on the clock, Leeds added more misery to an already miserable night for the Perpignan-based club. Rob Burrow split through the defence with his typical dip of the shoulder before making short work of full-back Cyril Stacul to touchdown. Sinfield added the goal to the sound of the full-time hooter, capping off a fine second half display for the Rhinos.
Leeds Rhinos: Lee Smith, Zak Hardaker, Brett Delaney, Keith Senior, Ryan Hall, Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai, Danny Buderus, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Jay Pitts, Carl Ablett. Subs: Weller Hauraki, Ian Kirke, Luke Burgess, Paul McShane.
Tries: Hall (21),Leuluai (55), Hardaker (72,74), Burrow (76)
Goals: Sinfield 5/6
Catalans Dragons: Cyril Stacul, Damien Blanch, Jean-Philippe Baile, Mathias Pala, Frédéric Vaccari, Setaimata Sa, Thomas Bosc, David Ferriol, Ian Henderson, Jamal Fakir, Sébastien Raguin, Gregory Mounis, Jason Baitieri. Subs: Tony Gigot, Michael Simon, Sébastien Martins.
Tries: Henderson (61)
Goals: Bosc 1/1
Referee: Robert Hicks
Love Rugby League Man of the Match: Kevin Sinfield
Sin Bin: None
Sent Off: None