FOR THE second successive game Super League’s bottom team put a spanner in one of the leading sides’ works as Leeds Rhinos continued their revival at Wigan Warriors’ expense.
The 18-16 win was much nervier than it might have been, but provided outstanding entertainment for another big crowd at Headingley.
All the first half scoring came in a five-minute period, Leeds going 6-0 ahead and Wigan pulling a try back almost immediately.
Rhinos extended their lead soon after the break and went 14 points in front 15 minutes from time, but Wigan are in second spot for a reason and they almost snatched it in a dramatic two-try revival.
A few incidents went their way, which suggests Leeds’ luck may have changed, but they were deserved winners over the 80 minutes – just.
It will be considered a shock result, but Wigan will point to the fact they were without nine of their senior squad, including ankle injury victim Sam Tomkins and suspended captain Sean O’Loughlin.
They gave a debut off the bench to star mid-season signing Frank-Paul Nuuausala.
In contrast, Rhinos were closer to full strength than they have been previously this year, with only Danny McGuire, Mitch Garbutt and Stevie Ward – who has yet to play in 2016 – on the casualty list.
Garbutt, one of their most in-form forwards, had been due to play, but picked up a back problem in the final team run on Thursday.
Brad Singleton moved from loose-forward to prop and Jamie Jones-Buchanan stepped up off the bench.
Brett Ferres, who wasn’t named in the initial 19, came in on the bench after missing the win at Hull due to a foot injury.
Tom Briscoe returned from long-term injury on the right-wing, in place of Ash Handley.
Leeds have improved as they get players back. Mid-season signing James Segeyaro has made a difference and, though their lack of an attacking stand-off is still a problem, they look more dangerous with ball in hand than they did earlier in the campaign.
They also showed tremendous resolve, for the most part, when Wigan put them under pressure and they managed the final seven minutes particularly well.
It was an exciting, open contest. Leeds had the first chance, after five minutes, when Kallum Watkins threw a dummy and darted for the line from acting-half, but was held just short.
Then Rob Burrow raced clear and had Ryan Hall in support, but Willie Isa made an outstanding try-saving tackle.
A knock-on by Ryan Sutton inside Wigan’s half gave Leeds another opportunity on 11 minutes and the pressure told when Jordan Lilley, who did well before being hurt late on, teed-up Watkins and he showed incredible strength to power over with three defenders hanging off him.
It was the 10th successive game Leeds had opened the scoring and Sutcliffe’s conversion made it 6-0, but only briefly.
A penalty relieved the siege on Wigan’s line and at the end of that set George Williams grubbered behind the defence and the ball stood up kindly for Josh Charnley to collect and touch down.
Smith could not add the extras from the sideline and there was no further scoring in the first half, though both teams had good chances.
Rhinos turned down a kickable penalty a few metres out soon after Charnley’s try, which showed plenty of confidence, but might not have been the best approach against a defence as mean as Wigan’s.
They couldn’t find a way through and Joel Moon, whose return had had a big bearing on recent improved results, had to make a excellent low tackle to keep Sutton out at the other end.
Moon did not come out for the second half and was replaced by Jimmy Keinhorst. Mitch Achurch has also been in good form for Leeds. He found himself on the right wing when he got on the end of a pass from Segeyaro, but Charnley tackled him into touch.
Williams shimmied into space to create Wigan’s other opportunity, but couldn’t go all the way and Leeds scrambled well to keep their line intact, even after Briscoe was shoved into space after taking the final-tackle kick.
Wigan looked the more dangerous team immediately after half-time and went close through Isa, but it was Leeds who grabbed the game’s third try.
Watkins, who looks a threat with the ball again, contributed a strong run earlier in the set, then Burrow found Carl Ablett. He burst past two defenders and offloaded out of the grasp of a third.
Adam Cuthbertson was on the end of the pass and the big Aussie – who had put his side under pressure with some poor offloads in the first 40 – rampaged over for a touchdown which Sutcliffe improved. It was a quality try, with Sutclife and Lilley also playing a part.
Wigan have high hopes for young full-back Lewis Tierney. He displayed pace and evasive skills to burst clear on a kick return, but Sutcliffe stood his ground to make the try-saving tackle.
Charnley then darted from acting-half, slipped after Sutcliffe got a hand to him and was penalised for trying to milk a penalty at the play-the-ball.
Leeds are still prone to putting themselves under pressure with errors and penalties. On 62 minutes Briscoe knocked on near his own line and Ferres was penalised for a high tackle on Sutton.
Smith and Williams worked the ball wide to Charnley and he got over at the corner. Referee Robert Hicks said no try and video assistant Joe Cobb agreed it was a double movement.
Leeds also got away with it moments later when Achurch knocked on deep in home territory. A couple of penalties took them upfield and on the final tackle Burrow kicked to the left-flank and the ball came loose – through a forest of arms – to Ferres, who got it down.
Hicks said try and – after a long look – Cobb confirmed the try, which Sutcliffe improved.
With 10 minutes left Charnley collected a bouncing ball on the last and slung out a long – flat at best – pass to Jack Higginson, who crossed at the corner.
Smith’s conversion made it an eight-point ball game again and the gap was down to two almost immediately when Williams cut through for a brilliant solo try, converted by Smith.
That set up a tense finale, but Leeds held on with no further alarms for a win which lifted them off the foot of the table.
In the first half Leeds were incensed at a challenge by Taulima Tautai on Cuthbertson’s standing leg and that should be something the match review panel will look at on Monday.
None of the officials saw anything wrong and Ablett was spoken to by referee Robert Hicks for his angry protest.
The penalty count finished 8-5 to Leeds – 3-3 in the first half.