A TRY by Kallum Watkins in his 200th appearance for the club helped Leeds Rhinos to an eye-catching 26-18 win over Wigan Warriors in an outstanding tussle at Headingley last night.
Understrength Wigan were in front briefly and kept coming back at Leeds, but the hosts sealed a fourth successive win when Carl Ablett, who was magnificent throughout, scored their fourth touchdown two minutes from time.
Both teams led during a terrific opening period which ended with Leeds two points ahead, thanks to an early penalty goal.
Wigan scored the first and last tries of the half, either side of a couple of touchdowns by the hosts.
The opening period ended in ugly fashion with a couple of scuffles breaking out and Leeds being reduced to 12 men with Brett Ferres banished to the sin-bin in the 39th minute, moments after the hosts had a touchdown ruled out by the video referee.
Rhinos opened a two-score gap early in the second period, after the fourth official had disallowed a Wigan touchdown.
Again the visitors hit back to within two going into the final 15 minutes, but Wigan never really got close to snatching the game from the fire and Ablett’s late winner was deserved, for him and the team.
It was a remarkable effort by Wigan, who are missing a host of first-choice players. But over the last four games Leeds have found a new winning attitude.
Their attack looks threatening all over the field and they are defending strongly, even when a man down.
The only change to Rhinos’ 17 was Brett Delaney’s return – after a game out with a groin injury – in place of Jordan Baldwinson.
The young prop is set to feature on dual-registration for Featherstone Rovers at Dewsbury Rams tomorrow along with Ash Handley and Josh Walters, who missed out last night after being included in the initial 19.
Leeds are obviously being cautious with Baldwinson, but he could feel unlucky to be left out after a couple of strong performances. Mitch Garbutt stepped up into the starting 13 and Delaney was on the bench.
Rhinos – wearing a white heritage kit – had the first sight of the opposition’s line when Ashton Golding almost sneaked over from acting-half.
Golding had another impressive game for Leeds, particularly in defence near his own line.
Oliver Gildart, back after injury for Wigan, made a fine tackle to shut down a strong-running Ferres on seven minutes, then Adam Cuthbertson’s offload was intercepted by Thomas Leuluai. But Wigan were penalised for offside and Golding took the two to kick Leeds ahead.
The lead was short lived. Leeds’ Ablett and Garbutt were penalised for lifting in a tackle and Tom Briscoe conceded a drop out from George Williams’ kick at the end of the resulting set.
Off that Leuluai fed Williams and he stepped past Ablett and Garbutt and stretched over through Matt Parcell’s last-ditch tackle for a try which Morgan Escare converted.
That was against the run of the play, but the score rattled Leeds and gave Wigan a lift. Williams and Ben Flower were both dragged down right on the line, but Danny McGuire snuffed out the attack by pouncing on Leuluai’s pass. Watkins ran a great line onto acting-half Ablett’s pass and raced 70 metres before turning the ball inside to Ryan Hall.
It was his third try in as many games and Golding’s goal edged Rhinos back in front.
That was on 21 minutes and four later Joel Moon danced over for a stunning solo try on the final tackle.
Golding converted to make it 14-6, but Williams scored his second in similar style, getting past Delaney and another Escare conversion cut the lead to just two.
That was the end of the first half scoring, but not the action. Three minutes before the break Leeds received back-to-back penalties and Cuthbertson was held up over the line by Escare and Ryan Sutton. Then McGuire kicked to the corner, the ball came back off Briscoe to Watkins and he touched down.
Referee Ben Thaler referred it to video assistant Phil Bentham as a try, but the extra official decided Briscoe had shoved Liam Marshall off the ball. As the try was being ruled out, Willie Isa seemed to take exception to Golding lining up the conversion and that sparked a scuffle.
Thaler took no action against the Wigan man, but then sin-binned Brett Ferres for a foul on Gildart moments later.
Ferres was the fourth Leeds player sin-binned in as many games, after Jimmy Keinhorst and Cuthbertson against Catalans and Ablett last week – by Thaler – at Huddersfield.
Gildart was helped from the field after treatment, returned for the start of the second half and went off again within moments of the resumption.
Leeds extended their lead through a Golding penalty goal on 49 minutes and moments later the full-back made a crucial try-saving tackle on Nick Gregson.
The substitute seemed to have twisted over from acting-half after Isa had gone close. Thaler indicated a try, but was again over-ruled by Bentham. It was a double movement and Leeds scored from the penalty. Parcell and McGuire worked the ball to Watkins and he marked his milestone by blasting over from 40 metres out.
There was no conversion and Rhinos handed Wigan a way back into the game with 15 left. Briscoe knocked on from Moon’s pass and Liam Marshall picked up and raced over from half-way. Escare’s conversion made it a two-point ball game again. Watkins got over the line with eight minutes left, but had already knocked-on from Sutcliffe’s kick.
Then Burrow offloaded close to the line and Sutcliffe would have scored if he had taken the pass, but didn’t.
It was tense right until the 78th minute when Ablett stormed over from Moon’s pass and Golding’s conversion completed the scoring.
Leeds still have some way to go, but have been transformed from a month ago.
If they keep playing as they are a top-eight spot will be a formality and they are beginning to look like a team who could at least press for the Super League semi-finals, which seemed unthnkable when they suffered their record defeat at Castleford four weeks ago.
The final penalty count was 9-6 in Leeds’ favour (4-4 in the first half).
As is now the norm, both teams were penalised once for an incorrect play-the-ball.
That seems to be policy now, but it is rather pointless.