LEEDS RHINOS were nilled for the first time in 19 years last night, but their makeshift and very young side came away from their 34-0 defeat at DW Stadium with credit.
Rhinos were without 15 players who have featured in the first team this year, all of them due to injuries of varying degrees of severity.
Presumably had the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final against Hull been today – not in a week’s time – many of them would have been risked.
If Rhinos reach Wembley they won’t have another break this season so it was a last opportunity to rest players who are carrying knocks.
Whether that was a smart move or disrespectful to the competition is a matter of opinion and a case can be made either way, but – with second place on the table secured going into the Super-8s – there wasn’t a lot to lose.
Had Rhinos fielded a stronger side they could have won this game. Wigan weren’t good, but the victory kept them in the hunt for a play-offs spot, though Leeds will get another chance in the eights.
Looking at the bigger picture, while they were out of their depth three academy players have had a taste of Super League and it was more experience for some fringe men.
Unsurprisingly, there was a huge difference physically. Rhinos were shoved back constantly and struggled to gain any forward momentum.
When they did have the ball they tended to turn it over cheaply. But what Rhinos didn’t lack was bottle and a tremendous rearguard effort restricted Wigan to three tries in the first half and four after the break.
The five minutes before half-time typified Leeds’ spirited defence.
They almost scored when the tackle count was wiped with Rhinos attacking Wigan’s line, but Jack Walker knocked on just short when it looked like he was about to score.
That was Leeds’ only real try-scoring opportunity in the whole game. Wigan applied huge pressure from the tap, forcing a couple of drop-outs and getting a penalty close to the whitewash, but Leeds held out.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan captained Leeds on the day and was named at hooker. Tony Clubb returned the ball from the first drop out in that spell and absolutely smashed the Leeds veteran, but he got back up and – remarkably – dragged Willie Isa down on the next play when the second-rower seemed to be heading for the line.
The second period was even more one-sided and when Wigan scored two tries in quick succession it seemed Leeds might collapse, but they hung in bravely and didn’t concede again until the last 10 minutes.
It’s quicker to list the senior players who did feature rather than the ones who didn’t.
Tom Briscoe, Jimmy Keinhorst, Golding, Mitch Garbutt, Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett and Anthony Mullally were the only top-20 squad members on duty.
Jack Walker and Jordan Lilley also retained their places from the win over Hull.
The average of the team was 22 and a half, the third-youngest for the club in a Super League game. Leeds’ youngest Super League side was one which lost 62-24 at Halifax in August 1996, with an average age of 21.24. The average age of the team which won at Wigan in September, 2002, was 22.18.
There were two 17-year-olds in last night’s starting line-up – Walker and Harry Newman, alongside Alex Sutcliffe who is a year older.
Newman became the first player born this century to play in Super League, for any club.
All four substitutes – Mikolaj Oledzki, Josh Jordan-Roberts, Cameron Smith and Harvey Whiteley – were aged 18.
It took Wigan until the 11th minute to open the scoring, through Leeds-born hooker Michael McIlorum, who scooted through a big gap from acting-half.
George Williams landed the first of his two conversions.
In the next set Anthony Mullally was penalised for holding down and then, after Williams had run across the defence, Sam Tomkins kicked ahead and made a good low pick up to score.
Rhinos received two penalties in the first quarter, both near their own line. Newman knocked on on the first tackle from the first and the second on the other occasion.
Rhinos survived both those attacks, but then Jack Ormondroyd knocked on – again early in the count deep in Rhinos’ territory.
Isa forced his way over the line, but referee Ben Thaler sent the decision up as a no try and video assistant James Child agreed, spotting that Ashton Golding – playing at stand-off – had prevented the ball being grounded.
Isa crossed again later in the same set, from Thomas Leuluai’s pass. This time Thaler indicated a try, but Child spotted an obstruction and overuled him. Child finally awarded Wigan a try at the third time of asking, 10 minutes before the break. Walker did well to field Williams’ kick on his own line, but for the third time in the half Leeds turned the ball straight back over, Williams crossed and Child agreed with Thaler’s initial feeling that he had got the ball down, despite Golding’s brave effort.
The second half began as the first ended with more terrific line defence by Leeds to hold Sean O’Loughlin up and then halt Tomkins just short, but pressure eventually told as Oliver Gildart went over on 50 and 54 minutes and Williams converted the second to make it 24-0.
It stayed that way until the final 10 minutes when Tom Davies and Williams crossed and Sam Powell added a conversion to complete the scoring.
For the record, the players who dropped out from the previous game were concussion victims Ryan Hall and Stevie Ward, Brad Singleton (calf), Adam Cuthbertson (knee), Danny McGuire (hamstring), Joel Moon (neck) and Matt Parcell (Achilles), plus Keith Galloway who has a season-ending Achilles injury.
Kallum Watkins (knee), Liam Sutcliffe (hamstring), Rob Burrow (shoulder), Brett Ferres (knee), Brett Delaney (both knees), Josh Walters (knee) and Ash Handley (knee) remained on the casualty list.
Sutcliffe and Burrow are doubtful for the semi-final and Galloway, Ferres and Delaney will not be ready, but the other first-choice players are expected to return.