Leeds Rhinos just about deserved a tense 20-18 win over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats at Headingley Carnegie – which sets the scene nicely for next Friday’s rematch.
Leeds applied most of the pressure, but Wildcats turned in a tremendous defensive effort and almost snatched a shock victory on the counter-attack.
Once again Leeds were unable to get through injury-free, Kallum Watkins limping off with an ankle injury late in the second half.
Wildcats – crucially without key men Paul Sykes and Dean Collis – also picked up a major casualty, losing skipper Danny Kirmond soon after half-time.
Rhinos looked intent on running Wildcats off their feet in the early stages, mounting a relentless barrage of attacks in a scoreless opening 24 minutes.
Wildcats’ first play-the-ball in the Leeds half of the field didn’t come until the 18th minute – and that followed a knock-on by Rhinos hooker Paul McShane.
Defence has not been Wildcats’ strong point this season, but they scrambled magnificently under massive pressure and could actually have been in front at the break.
Rhinos continued to miss chances at the start of the second period as Wildcats continually turned the ball over near their own line.
An example of both came on 48 minutes when Peter Fox knocked-on 20 out, squared up to Brad Singleton and then –presumably – said something to a touch judge, who reported the matter to referee Phil Bentham.
The official let him off with a warning, but Leeds wasted the opportunity when Ben Jones-Bishop spilled Watkins’ pass.
That incident summarised a frustrating encounter which was on simmer throughout, but never hit the boil, despite a great deal of effort.
On the positive side was a thrilling final quarter and some good performances.
Wakefield were on the defensive almost throughout, but Paul Aiton was strong, Kyle Amor contributed some powerful spells and there were moments off class from Tim Smith.
Zak Hardaker – who had a spell in the halves – was one of Rhinos’ best, alongside Rob Burrow, Joel Moon and Chris Clarkson.
Rhinos almost got off to a flier after a 40-20 kick from Liam Sutcliffe at the end of the first set of the game, but Fox’s tackle put Ryan Hall into touch.
And the hosts weren’t far away from scoring what would have been a sensational try moments later when they kept the ball alive on the final tackle before Moon chipped and chased, Fox took the kick, but was trapped in goal as the centre followed up.
A lovely pass from Tim Smith to Fox on a final tackle created Wildcats’ first chance. The winger had Lee Smith in support, but Ian Kirke and Jones-Bishop chased back to snuff out the danger.
That was a brief respite from waves of early Leeds pressure and a second 40-20, from Burrow this time, led to Sutcliffe getting over the line from McShane’s pass, but Kirmond got underneath to prevent the stand-off grounding the ball.
A humid night had an effect on the players’ handling and the breakthrough finally came after a series of uncompleted sets due to errors by both teams.
It was one from Kirmond which led to Leeds first successful attack, Peacock, Burrow, Sutcliffe, Hardaker and Watkins handling across the line before Jones-Bishop got over at the corner.
Hardaker couldn’t convert and Wakefield hit back out of the blue to go in front five minutes later with a freak score.
Hardaker made a stunning tackle to halt Kyle Trout, but Wildcats got a repeat set off a Tim Smith kick and on the final play the No 7 kicked ahead, Jones-Bishop hacked at the ball, it hit a post and amid a huge scramble in-goal, Andy Raleigh, who later went off with a possible season-ending facial injury, was adjudged to have touched down.
Lee Smith’s conversion was a formality, but the lead was short-lived.
Frankie Mariano lost possession in the set from the re-start and as Leeds countered, McShane and Burrow worked the ball to Sutcliffe.
Kevin Sinfield-style he planted a magnificent cross-kick to the right flank and Jones-Bishop got above Ben Cockayne to touch down. Burrow took over the goal kicking and landed a beauty from the touchline to edge Leeds into a four-point interval lead.
Cockayne produced a fine defensive effort to barge Jones-Bishop into touch close to the flag in the opening moments of the second half.
Fox’s set to with Singleton and the touchjudge raised the temperature and it was the Wakefield winger who misread the play when Burrow hurled out a long pass to Moon, who ghosted past the winger to touch down too far out for Burrow to add the extras.
Wakefield rarely threatened on attack, but a series of penalties took them into Leeds’ half and Ali Lauitiiti stretched over with 12 left, Lee Smith’s goal cutting the gap to two points.
That set the cat among the pigeons, but with three minutes left Burrow kicked to the corner, the ball came off Fox, Lee Smith couldn’t get to it and Hall touched down – Burrow’s excellent touchline goal opening a two point gap.
That proved decisive. Remarkably, Wakefield got the ball back from a short re-start and Tim Smith put Mariano over in the resulting set, but Leeds’ kick-off bounced dead in goal past Tim Smith to finally put the result in Rhinos’ pocket.
Leeds welcomed back Brett Delaney – who had a good game – after a four match absence due to a knee injury, taking over on the bench from Mitch Achurch (knee/quad).
Prop Kylie Leuluai – who had been named in the initial squad - didn’t make the 17 and also still missing were half-back Danny McGuire and forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Kevin Sinfield, Stevie Ward and Ryan Bailey. Positionally the only change saw Ian Kirke start, with Moore dropping to the bench.
For Wildcats, Reece Lyne came into the centres and Danny Washbrook switched from the pack to No 6, with Trout recalled at loose-forward.
The penalty count finished 6-5 in Wildcats’ favour (2-1 to Leeds in the first-half).
Bradford rescued some hope of reaching the Super League play-offs for the first time in five years by coming from behind to claim a nail-biting 19-12 victory over fellow top-eight hopefuls Hull.
Jarrod Sammut, Elliot Kear and Matt Diskin got the Bulls’ tries, Jamie Foster kicked three goals and Luke Gale a drop goal as Bulls edged home.