Super League champions Leeds’ preparations for next Sunday’s World Club Challenge against North Queensland are in disarray after they crashed to a shock 56-12 defeat at Widnes.
Former Canterbury winger Corey Thompson scored a hat-trick of tries on his home debut to help rack up Widnes’ biggest-ever win over the Rhinos and condemn them to a second successive defeat on the artificial pitch at the Halton Stadium.
Following their opening 12-10 home defeat by Warrington, it is the first time for 16 years that Leeds have lost their first two matches of the season but of more immediate concern is an early-season injury crisis that threatens to cause massive disruption ahead of their clash with the NRL premiers.
Already without Danny McGuire, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Stevie Ward and new signing Beau Falloon, the champions lost winger Tom Briscoe, full-back Ashton Golding and second-rower Carl Ablett with leg injuries before half-time when they trailed 28-6.
Constantly having to re-shuffle, the Rhinos were simply no match for a slick-moving Widnes side who have made it two wins out of two in an impressive start to the season.
It was largely one-way traffic from the moment centre Charly Runciman slipped a delightful pass out of the tackle to get winger Stef Marsh over for the first of the Vikings’ 10 tries after only five minutes.
The Leeds defence survived more scares before hooker Lloyd White’s pinpoint pass got second-rower Setaimata Sa striding through a gap for his third try in only two appearances for Widnes and, when centre Chris Bridge put Thompson over for a third try, it was 16-0 after just 12 minutes.
A rare break out of defence by Briscoe provided some respite for the champions but Widnes scrambled superbly to keep their line intact and injuries began to take their toll when Briscoe hobbled off after 25 minutes.
Widnes skipper Kevin Brown, who was never far from the action, then combined with replacement hooker Aaron Heremaia to get White over for a fourth try before Ablett and Golding joined Briscoe in a dressing room that began to look more like a casualty ward.
With Leeds’ players being used out of position, the home side took advantage of their visitors’ misfortune, with Runciman finishing off a break by full-back Rhys Hanbury to score a fifth try.
Hanbury’s fourth goal made it 28-0 but England centre Kallum Watkins, by then playing on the wing, pulled a try back on the stroke of half-time and teenager Jordan Lilley kicked the conversion from the touchline.
Widnes ensure it was merely a minor irritation as they struck twice more inside the first 10 minutes of the second half, Brown and Mellor working Thompson in at the corner for his second and Sa putting Mellor over.
Thompson completed his hat-trick on 61 minutes and twice went close to adding a fourth while second-rower Connor Farrell grabbed one on his home debut and Marsh went over for his second, with Hanbury taking his goal tally to eight from 10 attempts.
Leeds were a sorry sight but they had the consolation of scoring the final try through acting captain Rob Burrow and Lilley kicked a second conversion.