NEW SKIPPER Danny McGuire went off injured as Leeds Rhinos suffered their first opening game defeat since 2000 last night, 12-10 at home to Warrington Wolves.
It was two tries each but Zak Hardaker could not convert Leeds’ second touchdown and was wide with a penalty shot three minutes from time, which could have salvaged a point.
It was almost inevitable Rhinos would lose on goal kicks in their first game of the new post-Kevin Sinfield era.
McGuire hobbled off late in the first half and emerged from the changing rooms with a knee in a protective brace.
That will be a huge concern for Rhinos, particularly with North Queensland Cowboys due at Headingley two weeks tomorrow in the World Club Challenge.
The positive was that Jordan Lilley got lengthy game time in a tough clash with quality opposition. The 19-year-old had to play out of position, but did a fine job and provided the final pass for Rhinos’ second try.
Ultimately, Leeds had enough chances to win the game, but Warrington deserved the points for a magnificent defensive effort.
Leeds pressed for most of the opening period, but could not find a way through and went in at the break 6-0 adrift.
That was down to a combination of some rusty decision-making and finishing by Leeds and Warrington’s outstanding resolve in defence.
When McGuire went off eight minutes before the interval and Warrington scored, on a rare attack, moments later, the writing was on the wall.
Leeds battled back with two tries in eight minutes soon after the break, but despite all their first half defnding, Warrington finished strongly.
It was a fast, physical game, more like a play-offs tie than the opening game of the year and it set the bar high for the rest of round one.
Keith Galloway and Brett Ferres both made their competitive debut for Rhinos, who were without off-season signing Beau Falloon. The former Gold Coast Titans hooker suffered a broken toe in training last week, but could be in contention for the round two trip to Widnes Vikings. Also missing were long-term casualties Stevie Ward and Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
Rob Burrow started at No 9 and Lilley was rewarded for an outstanding pre-season with a place on the bench. He came on at hooker when McGuire was hurt and Burrow switched to scrumn-half.
Thirteen of last night’s team featured in the 2015 Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors.
As well as departed legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, there was no place for Old Trafford try scorer Josh Walters.
Liam Sutcliffe started at stand-off for only his second game since suffering knee ligament damage last June.
Sutcliffe got over the line on 12 minutes, darting from acting-half, but was held up. Moments later he went close again, but could not hold onn to Adam Cuthbertson’s offload just short of the line.
Leeds applied fierce pressure from three early penalties and some Warrington fumbles, including twice when Rhys Evans knocked down passes from McGuire, which might have created a try if they had reached a Rhinos man.
Kevin Penny dropped the ball returning McGuire’s kick and Leeds threatened through Tom Briscoe, Zak Hardaker – with a weaving run – and Ryan Hall before a dazzling passage of play ended with a ridiculous penalty against Rob Burrow, referee James Child ruling he hadn’t been tackled before playing the ball.
The visitors needed the respite, but it was only brief, as Carl Ablett was denied by a tremendous tackle from Evans and Matty Russell scrambled McGuire’s kick dead. The deadlock wasn’t broken until the 36th minute and, totally against the run of play up to that point, it was Warrington who scored.
Child blundered by awarding the visitors a penalty on the last for a ball steal by Ferres, when Brad Dwyer had clearly dropped it.
There was another for a high tackle by Brad Singleton on Chris Sandow and following that the half-back dummied over for a try which Kurt Gidley converted.
There was a possible obstruction before the touchdown, but Child was happy not to ask video referee Ben Thaler’s opinion.
Warrington’s only other real sight of Leeds’ line had come moments earlier, following another penalty, when Chris Hill knocked-on playing the ball.
Two penalties and some Warrington handling errors meant the start of the second half followed the same pattern as most of the first, with Leeds battering Wolves’ line.
The try finally came on 47 minutes when Burrow dropped the ball back to Singleton and he took route one, crashing over the top of Gidley and Russell.
Thaler gave the green light and Hardaker’s conversion squared the scores. Rhinos were in front eight later, after a penalty for a high shot by Gidley on Hall.
Moon’s run did most of the damage and he got a fine pass away to Lilley, who fed the ball on to Hall and he got over the top of Tom Lineham, though Hardaker could not add the extras.
Briscoe’s excellent tackle halted Ben Currie and forced the ball loose as Warrington looked to counter.
Currie and Evans traded runs and Burrow contributed an astonishing tackle to mow Rhys Evans in to touch after Child had awarded Warrington the feed at a scrum following Joe Westerman’s ball steal on Hall.
With 13 minutes left Sandow spotted an opening on Leeds’ right and kicked to Currie, who put Penny over unopposed.
Thaler awarded the try and Gidley’s kick restored Warrington’s lead. Leeds had a late try scoring opportunity when Burrow dashed clear from Sutcliffe’s pass, but he didn’t quite have the legs to go all the way.
Then with 3.18 left on the clock Currie obstructed Lilley and Hardaker went for goal, 30 metres out, but his kick was off target.
Warrington included six debutants, but were well below strength, with Ryan Atkins, Ben Evans, James Laithwaite, Stefan Ratchford, Mitchell Dodds and Ryan Bailey all on the casualty list.
Based on last night’s performance, they will feel this could be their year.
The penalty count finished 10-5 in Leeds’ favour (5-4 to Warrington in the first half).
Rhinos’ Super League fixture at Salford Red Devils, scheduled for April 8, has been put back a day to Saturday, April 9 (6.30pm).
Hunslet Hawks have signed Daniel Williams a back row forward from Stainland Stags and prop forward Jamie Milburn from Oxford following successful trials at the club.