LEEDS RHINOS got back to winning ways with a 26-14 home victory over Wigan Warriors last night which was more convincing than the final scoreline suggests.
Leeds were the better team throughout, though they led only 16-14 at the interval as Wigan’s two tries topped and tailed the half.
Wigan went 8-0 up inside 16 minutes, but Rhinos – who hadn’t scored in the opening period of their previous two games – ran in three quick tries to lead by a similar margin, before the visitors got back into it just before the break.
Rhinos played the better rugby in the first 40, Wigan feeding on scraps and scoring from their only two serious attacks.
It was a similar story in the second half, but Leeds eventually got over the top of dogged opposition with two tries in the final quarter, when they were aided by a huge penalty count in their favour and a yellow card to Wigan’s Liam Farrell.
It was a scrappy game, but Leeds played some smart rugby at times and there was another outstanding effort from Aussie prop Adam Cuthbertson, who is proving to be an excellent signing. The opening exchanges were fast and furious and the first stoppage didn’t come until the eighth minute, when Paul Aiton’s kick and a good team chase trapped Anthony Gelling in goal.
The drop out led to a chance when Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s offload was shipped on by Aiton to Carl Ablett, but his pass – aimed at Ryan Hall – sailed into touch.
Moments later Danny McGuire kicked ahead, regathered and got over the line, but referee Richard Silverwood decided Hall’s pass had gone forward.
Wigan scored in the next set. Matty Smith and Matty Bowen carved out an opening for Gelling and though McGuire made the tackle, he managed to loft a pass to Smith, who went over and also added the extras.
Wigan got back-to-back penalties on 16 minutes – Jones-Buchanan for interference before a high shot by Cuthbertson on George Williams and Smith took the two from the second.
Leeds got the ball back from both re-starts. The first came to naught, but the second bounced into touch and Rhinos got on the board following the scrum.
Aiton slid a perfect grubber kick between the posts and Cuthbertson read it perfectly to make a sliding touchdown, improved by Liam Sutcliffe.
Leeds got their first penalty in the set from the re-start and that led to a second try. Aiton, Cuthbertson, Sutcliffe and the hard-working Stevie Ward worked the ball to Kallum Watkins, he made a break and drew the defence and then slipped out a pass to Ash Handley, who finished well at the corner.
That was the teenager’s first senior try in only his second Super League appearance, following his debut in last August’s infamous pre-Wembley defeat at London Broncos.
He took over from shoulder injury victim Tom Briscoe. Sutcliffe returned at stand-off – after two games on the sidelines – in place of captain Kevin Sinfield (hamstring) and Andy Yates made his second Super League appearance, replacing Kylie Leuluai (ribs) on the bench.
Only a terrific ankle tap by Smith prevented Hall going clear, but then Joel Tomkins was penalised for interference and Rhinos added six more points. Brad Singleton had just come off the bench in place of Jamie Peacock and – with his first touch – he crashed over from Aiton’s pass, Sutcliffe adding the extras.
Some decisions – for example a one-off penalty for offside and a knock-on call against Ward when he had the ball stolen in a two-man tackle – then went Wigan’s way, but their second try came off a Leeds error, Watkins intercepting to seemingly snuff out a Wigan attack only to drop the ball, setting up the position for Joe Burgess to run through and touch down from Williams’ kick. Smith’s conversion made it a two-point ball game at the interval and it was nip and tuck in the early clashes after the break.
The scrappy nature of the contest was highlighted on 54 minutes when Handley – at full-stretch – spilled Smith’s bomb close to Leeds’ line, but Lee Mossop, who almost joined Rhinos in pre-season, knocked on early in the tackle count.
That was their last sight of Leeds’ line until the closing moments. Wigan were placed on a team warning after conceding the first four penalties of the second half, two for high shots on Yates. His upright running style means Rhinos will get plenty of those when he’s on the field.
Wigan were penalised again seven minutes later, for not standing square. There was no sin-bin, but Rhinos did score in the subsequent set when Sutcliffe stretched over from Burrow’s pass, though he could not add the conversion.
It was four tries to two at that stage, but only a six-point gap and goal kicking is a concern for Rhinos when Sinfield is not in the team.
Sutcliffe made no mistake with a penalty a couple of minutes later. Burgess came up with a contender for tackle of the season with a brilliant chase-back to haul McGuire down after he looked a certain scorer from Watkins’ brilliant surge. Leeds shipped the ball wide and Liam Farrell came from an offside position to tackle Watkins. He looped a pass to Sutcliffe, who touched down, but Silverwood had already blown for the penalty.
Farrell was sin-binned and Sutcliffe took the two. Then yet another penalty – their seventh of the half – went Leeds’ way, for Wigan moving off the mark in possession.
Rob Burrow, who had waited until the 59th minute to get on, squeezed over from acting-half, to make it 24-14.
Burgess had a ‘touchdown’ ruled out by the video referees – for dropping the ball over the line – and in the next set Joel Moon crossed. Silverwood said no try and handed the decision on, video refs Ben Thaler and Ian Smith ruling the touchdown out and awarding Wigan their only penalty of the half. The penalty count finished 11-5 in Leeds’ favour (4-4 in the first half).
Rhinos’ side included Zak Hardaker, who was dropped last week over his involvement in an assault, which he has admitted, in Leeds more than a month ago. Rhinos’ internal investigation in continuing, so there was speculation over whether he would again be left out, but coach Brian McDermott decided to recall him in place of youngster Ashton Golding.
Leeds are caught between a rock and a hard place. They obviously need and want to send out a strong message over Hardaker’s behaviour, but omitting him last night would have benefitted only Wigan and left them weaker.
Hardaker had a steady game, without doing anything very spectacular, though he did make two excellent try-saving tackles on Burgess late on.