AS A model of how to play a Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi-final, Leeds Rhinos’ 24-16 downing of Warrington Wolves was hard to fault.
After two months of shaky form Rhinos powered back to their best, dominating the first half and then toughing it out in the second when Warrington upped their game.
Leeds were everything a team needs to be to secure a place at Wembley: inventive and decisive with the ball and tough and resolute in defence.
The platform was laid in the first half as Leeds built a 14-0 lead. Warrington were poor before the break and never really looked like pulling it back afterwards, despite being much improved and Leeds were more convincing victors that the scoreline suggests.
Captain Kevin Sinfield – looking rested, refreshed and highly-motivated – kicked Rhinos ahead after two minutes with a penalty goal following an obstruction by Matty Russell in front of his own posts.
Rhinos received four successive penalties in the opening eight minutes, but didn’t get one after that and the count from referee Phil Bentham finished 5-4 in Warrington’s favour.
Leeds’ second penalty was due to Stefan Ratchford booting the re-start dead and kicks by Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow forced back-to-back drop-outs before Carl Ablett was held up over the line on the last, by Chris Bridge, Anthony England and Russell and soon afterwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan stretched over, but Bentham ruled a knock-on.
Warrington’s defence was strong throughout, but Leeds harried them into a series of mistakes on the rare occasions they had the ball in good field position before the interval.
All Rhinos lacked was a try, but that came, on 26. Warrington substitute Simon Grix knocked-on with his first touch and in the resulting set McGuire supplied Joel Moon and he fed Ryan Hall.
It was the toughest of chances, with no room to work tight to the left touchline, but Hall specialises in those sorts of finishes.
Video referee Ben Thaler gave the green light and Sinfield landed a terrific conversion to make it 8-0, which was a fair reflection at that stage.
McGuire’s pass was the first of a series of key contributions from the No 6, who rolled back the years with a magnificent display.
Warrington were restricted to just two half-chances in the opening 40. The first was on 34 minutes, when Zak Hardaker and Hall, with the sun in their eyes, allowed Ratchford’s kick to bounce, which it did – backwards to Michael Monaghan.
He offloaded to Paul Wood, the substitute found Roy Asotasi – and he lobbed a pass out wide, which a grateful Kallum Watkins intercepted.
Moments later McGuire swung out a long pass to Hall, who was in acres of space and made no mistake from 20 metres out.
Twenty-nine seconds before the interval Warrington were awarded a penalty, the ball was moved left and Russell seemed to have found a gap, but Brett Delaney – one of the most under-rated players in the British game – wrapped him up just short with time up.
Ablett was another key figure for Rhinos and he pulled off a miraculous tackle on Ryan Atkins at the start of the second half, but just three minutes in Richie Myler kicked to the corner, Joel Monaghan caught and released and Chris Bridge swooped over, though his conversion attempt hit a post.
Warrington were almost in again when Hall spilled another Myler kick, conceding a scrum this time. A superb tackle on Myler by the tireless Jamie Peacock’s kept Leeds’ line intact, then Watkins led a counter-attack. Ryan Bailey – who had a good impact off the bench – and Ablett carried on the momentum, then after Peacock, Burrow and Sinfield had also been involved in the build-up, Moon swooped through a gap from McGuire’s pass. It was unconverted and Rhinos had an escape when Peacock, McGuire, Sinfield and Ablett forced Chris Hill into a knock-on over the line, according to Thaler. Warrington, though, cut the gap with an hour gone when Bridge and Ben Westwood carved out a try for Ratchford and Bridge goaled. One of the most impressive aspects of Rhinos’ performance was the way they responded whenever Warrington seemed to be gaining a foothold.
Rhinos’ lead was always big enough to force Warrington into chasing the game and that contributed to the decisive try, with 13 left. Myler’s pass – on half-way – was pushed by Grix to Tom Briscoe, who had clear country ahead.
Rhys Evans had the Leeds man for pace, but Briscoe did brilliantly to fend him off and score between the posts, making Sinfield’s conversion a formality.
It was noticeable that Warrington didn’t run to form a couple of scrums after that and they clearly knew it wasn’t going to be their year, despite Westwood’s scrambled late touchdown and Bridge’s subsequent two-pointer. Leeds’ tactics were clearly to start well, play the game in their opponents’ half and not let Warrington settle on the ball, a plan which was carried out to near-perfection.
Boss Brian McDermott will have some thinking to do about his team for the trip to London Broncos, which comes just six days before the final.
Rhinos were close to full-strength with only Ben Jones-Bishop – who probably would not have played anyway – and Mitch Achurch being unavailable. Josh Walters – who was wearing a knee brace at the game – and Stevie Ward were the two to drop out from the initial 19, as Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, Leuluai, Peacock, Ablett and Bailey returned.
Gene Ormsby and Gareth O’Brien were the two Warrington players who missed out.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Ablett, Delaney, Jones-Buchanan. Subs (all used): Aiton, Bailey, Kirke, Sutcliffe.
Warrington Wolves: Russell, J Monaghan, Atkins, Bridge, Evans, Ratchford, Myler, Hill, M Monaghan, England, Waterhouse, Westwood, Harrison. Subs (all used): Asotasi, Wood, Grix, Higham.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).
Attendance: 12, 132.