LEEDS RHINOS produced a special effort as they returned to Super League’s summit following a 28-12 beating of defending champions Wigan Warriors.
Rhinos were better in every department in what was probably their most complete performance of the season so far.
If there’s a better full-back in Super League than Zak Hardaker at the moment, this writer hasn’t seen him.
The Leeds man is in dazzling form, both in attack and defensively, as he illustrated with a sensational tackle to mow opposite number Matty Bowen into touch in the second period.
He had a magnificent game, but was only a narrow man of the match due to the quality of performances around him.
Leeds were top class in the backs and forwards, but others worthy of a special mention included Ryan Hall and Mitch Achurch, who is playing the best rugby of his Rhinos career.
Rhinos as a team are defending better than at any time in the summer era. Wigan broke them several times and would have scored more than two tries against most other teams, but the way Leeds got back and covered for each other was outstanding.
To be fair to Wigan they were weakened when their talisman and captain Sean O’Loughlin withdrew shortly before the game, due to a groin injury.
But Leeds had to adjust to the loss of broken collarbone victim Rob Burrow and they did it seamlessly, which underlines how good they were.
Rhinos were full value for their 10-point interval lead, having scored three tries to one.
Their finishing was excellent and they scrambled well in defence, under heavy pressure at times, though Wigan showed plenty of good resolve to stay well in it. Another Leeds try at the start of the second half left Wigan with a mountain to climb, trailing by 16 – which was two more than Rhinos had conceded in any previous game this year.
Wigan never looked like closing the gap and the final margin was a fair reflection.
The talking point of Rhinos’ teamsheet was the naming of Carl Ablett at scrum-half.
Though he has played stand-off in the past, he is a specialist second-rower, or back-up centre.
Chris Clarkson – a substitute in last week’s Cup win – stepped up off the bench and was listed in the second-row, with Kevin Sinfield at hooker in place of Burrow.
Ryan Bailey came into the side, among the substitutes, his appearance – instead of Burrow – being the only personnel change from six days earlier.
In fact, Clarkson slipped into acting-half from the start, with Danny McGuire and Sinfield and the halves and Ablett playing second-row. McGuire it was who scored the opening try, after just 91 seconds. John Bateman knocked on in the first set and following the scrum Sinfield’s cross kick was knocked back by Ryan Hall and the No 6 gathered and dived over, Sinfield goaling.
A few things went Leeds’ way early on, including the knock-on by Bowen, 20 metres from Wigan’s line on Rhinos’ left.
Sinfield and Joel Moon handled from the scrum, but the try which followed was all Hardaker’s work, the full-back ghosting through on an angled run and handing-off Dan Sarginson before touching down too far out for Sinfield to convert.
Wigan’s first set in the Leeds half came after 21 minutes, after a penalty against Ablett. Michael McIlorum – the Leeds-born hooker captaining the visitors for the night – was tackled, but Tony Clubb caught the defence off guard to plunge over from acting-half and Matty Smith added the extras.
It looked as though Leeds thought McIlorum had been held up over the line and were possibly expecting the play-the-ball to be taken back 10 metres – though equally it could have been loss of concentration.
Leeds had a remarkable escape when Anthony Gelling intercepted from near Leeds’ line with clear country ahead.
He looked a certain scorer, but Hall ran him down and then Ablett, whose error had caused the alarm, got under Green to hold him up over the line.
After being under pressure for spell Leeds extended their advantage to 10 points just before the interval.
Hall’s stunning run out of defence, carried on by Moon, began the attack. Liam Sutcliffe, recently on off the bench, maintained the momentum and then a brilliant pass by Kallum Watkins sent Tom Briscoe strolling over. Sinfield’s excellent touchline conversion made it 16-6 at the interval. Sinfield was at acting-half by that stage, having switched roles when Sutcliffe came on in the halves.
When Leeds crossed again three minutes into the second period it wasn’t so much a try as a work of art. Watkins hoisted a bomb on the last, followed through and made the catch, then got his arms free to offload.
Jamie Peacock, turning in another incredibly passionate and determined display, made a low pick up and fed McGuire.
He found Ablett and Moon was next in line, the centre drawing the defence and then dabbing through a perfectly-weighted grubber which Hall gathered to touch down.
Video officials Richard Silverwood and Ian Smith conducted forensic examination and eventually gave the green light – confirming Hll’s 11th try in his last eight games – and Sinfield applied the icing from wide out to make it 22-6.
Moon had a touchdown ruled out by the video duo on 56 after McGuire knocked on in support of Hall’s break, then the Aussie – who signed a five-year contract the day before the game – helped Bailey hold Bowen up over the line in a rare Wigan attack.
Wigan scored a late consolation through Scott Taylor, following Smith’s 40-20 kick.
That was confirmed by the video officials, who probably had to advise referee Phil Bentham what to have for his post-match meal. Smith converted.
Other than his constant referrals upstairs, Bentham did a decent job, letting the game flow as much as he could.
The penalty count finished 5-1 after being 3-1 in Leeds’ favour at half-time. The last penalty came following some pushing and shoving after Wigan knocked on from the re-start after Taylor’s try. Leeds tapped it and rubbed salt into Wigan’s wounds as Peacock and McGuire handled before Sutcliffe dummied over and Sinfield converted to complete the scoring.
Meanwhile, Leeds Metropolitan University beat Leeds University 44-20 in yesterday’s Varsity curtain-raiser.
Wigan came out on top in the under-19s clash, winning 34-24 at Stanningley, after trailing 24-12 at the break. Ash Handley scored two tries for Leeds, Elliot Minchella, Brad Eng;land and George Milton got the others and Jordan Lilley kicked two goals.