THE gap that still exists between those at the very top and those that are trying to break into Super League's elite band has once again been cruelly exposed.

If Huddersfield Giants were to stand a realistic chance of beating world champions Leeds Rhinos, they needed to be at full-strength with every player competing at the very top of his game.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen for Giants coach Jon Sharp and his side.

Instead, they had to overcome the late withdrawal of in-form prop Paul Jackson with tonsillitis and another late failed fitness test on Paul Reilly (calf), and then went on to produce a display that was wholly inadequate against a star-studded Leeds side who, to be honest, were superb.

Several Giants did still manage to catch the eye, with prop Jim Gannon putting in another huge effort in the front row, and substitute hooker Sean Penkywicz providing great attacking spark following his introduction midway through the opening half.

But, overall, this was a lacklustre Huddersfield performance, their most unconvincing of the season - and against a side like the Rhinos, that's just asking for trouble.

Within 45 seconds, the signs were looking ominous as Kevin Sinfield burst through and fed flying winger Mark Calderwood to score the opening try.

Sinfield added the conversion, something he also did to the next eight Leeds' tries to complete a 100% success rate, and the visitors were on their way.

And by the 22nd minute the lead had been extended to 18-0 and the game was already slipping from the Giants' grasp.

Try No2 came after 15 minutes when Sinfield's high kick to the corner on the sixth tackle was collected by Calderwood who fed Richard Mathers to score with ease.

This was a bitter blow to Giants winger Paul White who, on two other occasions, was superb in defusing `bombs'.

Mathers also played a major part in Leeds' third try as he took the ball to the line and fed Chris McKenna to score from close range.

It wasn't looking good for the hosts.

But in the 27th minute, Giants' hope finally began to arrive.

Chev Walker spilt the ball in his own 20 and the ball was worked out to Chris Thorman who showed great vision in kicking to the corner for Hefin O'Hare to score against his former club.

Thorman failed with the goal attempt, but Huddersfield had at last found some life.

And with Penkywicz then going on to produce the `hit' of the match on Mathers and following up with a neat kick which forced Leeds to drop-out, the Giants looked the more likely to score.

But on the stroke of half-time, Sinfield again broke clear on halfway - was this the second time he had done so courtesy of a missed forward pass? - and Walker was on hand to finish off.

Given the second 20 minutes of the half, a 24-4 deficit was cruel in the extreme on the home side.

However, the start of the second period again raised hopes of a glorious Giants' fightback, just as there had been against Hull and St Helens.

Within five minutes of the restart, the Leeds lead had been trimmed to 14 points as a short Penkywicz pass was grabbed by Gannon to crash over.

Thorman's goal made it 24-10 and it was looking good.

But, unfortunately, on this occasion there was to be no stirring revival.

Instead, this try was the cue for Leeds to step up another gear and prove why they are the best rugby league side in the world.

By the 48th minute the Super League champions had put their challenge back on track with McKenna's second try after good work from Andrew Dunemann, and normal Rhinos service had been resumed.

But they were helped in their cause as Gannon was sent to the sin-bin for holding down after Calderwood had broken from deep.

That came in the 52nd minute and a minute later, Gareth Ellis had fed Walker to score his second.

And before Gannon had returned to the field, Rob Burrow scampered through some wafer thin defence to score with ease on the sixth tackle.

The Giants did threaten a late rally, with strong-performing centre James Evans held up over the line in the 72nd minute.

Yet that again proved the signal for another late and decisive Leeds burst.

With four minutes remaining, Jamie Jones-Buchanan stole possession from under the Giants' noses and galloped away to score by the posts.

Then two minutes later, Keith Senior inflicted further misery on his hometown club by breaking clear and finding Mathers to bring up the half-century of points.