THERE WAS no sign of Wembleyitis last night as Leeds Rhinos kicked off their First Utility Super-8s campaign with a stunning 49-10 demolition of Warrington Wolves
A week after their outstanding Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final conquering of St Helens, Rhinos produced another performance out of the top drawer.
Against a team who had beaten them comfortably twice in the regular season, Rhinos were strong in defence and scintillating with ball in hand, running in eight tries.
The highlights of a terrific attacking display were two world class touchdowns by Zak Hardaker. His first was good, the second a contender for the best of the season.
Warrington forward Ben Currie charged down Kevin Sinfield’s kick, but Kallum Watkins shovelled the rebound to Tom Briscoe.
He got past a couple of defenders and then passed on to Hardaker, seemingly boxed in in midfield and the full-back stepped past Richie Myler twice and Stefan Ratchford before taking Kevin Penny over the line with him.
It was probably Hardaker’s best attacking performance in a Leeds jersey, but Watkins, Danny McGuire and the commanding Sinfield were just as good.
Rhinos were 18 points up at the break, having trailed by six early on.
They dominated most of the opening period, but for one disastrous lapse and were full value for the lead.
Warrington cut the gap and put Leeds under some pressure before Hardaker’s second score put the game out of their reach and it was exhibition stuff at times after that.
The hosts had the first chance after Kevin Penny, under no pressure, spilled McGuire’s kick close to the Warrington line.
Carl Ablett went close twice and Jamie Peacock also put the visitors’ defence under pressure, but they held out strongly.
Other than that, the opening exchanges were a midfield stalemate with neither side to force an opening, though Chris Sandow almost found a gap with an early touch for Warrington.
The breakthrough, when it came, was a disaster for Leeds, beginning when they failed to find touch with a penalty, which Penny did well to keep in play.
That turned what should have been a defensive set into attack, Daryl Clark broke up the middle, shrugging off McGuire and Adam Cuthbertson and Penny was in support to cross for a try out of nothing, which Sandow improved.
That set nerves jangling after the earlier meetings, but the lead was short lived. Paul Aiton’s pass sent Watkins tearing away.
He was tackled by Ratchford, Watkins played the ball to McGuire and he gave it straight back to the centre, whose touchdown was improved by Sinfield.
Leeds were in front – for the first time this season against Warrington – on 22, after a penalty following a trip on McGuire. Aiton, Peacock and Brett Delaney worked the ball to Sinfield and his outstanding long pass picked out Briscoe, who got over too wide out for the skipper to add the extras.
McGuire spilled the re-start, which referee James Child decided was a knock-on and it looked like Warrington had got level, but Ratchford’s lobbed pass to Penny was ruled forward.
Rhinos went further in front seven minutes before the break with an outstanding try. Peacock’s inside pass found Hardaker, who got past Rhys Evans and into open space.
Ratchford stood his ground and looked to have made the tackle, but Hardaker swivelled out of it and went between the posts, making Sinfield’s kick a formality. Leeds’ next touchdown was a contender for the untidiest of the season. It started sweetly as Watkins, Briscoe and Sinfield worked the ball to Cuthbertson, who went on a thunderous charge before offloading to Ablett.
The No 12 tapped the ball on a couple of times, Evans failed to hack it clear and McGuire touched down.
Referee Child said no try and it took a few looks for his video assistants Phil Bentham and Chris Kendall to decide Ablett hadn’t knocked on, the ball coming off his shorts. Everything else was okay, so the try was given. Sinfield converted and from the restart Watkins burst away with Briscoe in support. The winger took the ball, but was lifted off his feet and carried into touch. Sinfield booted the resulting penalty, after the hooter, to make it 24-6.
Rhinos had an escape at the start of the second half when Richie Myler intercepted McGuire’s pass, but Ryan Hall – with his hair dyed to match Warrington’s yellow shirts – ran him down.
On 47 Sandown’s outstanding pass sent Ratchford away and he put Penny over at the corner, the try being given even though the final pass looked forward.
Warrington have high hopes for Sandown, the richly talented former Parramatta Eels stand-off.
He is match fit, having been playing in the NRL and – on this evidence once he gets to know his team-mates better he will be an outstanding addition.
Sandow’s kick created a repeat set soon after the try, but stunning individual tackles by Aiton, McGuire and Hall kept Warrington out. That was a big set.
Hardaker’s second, sensational try, came two minutes later and Sinfield added the goal to make it 30-10.
Moon then touched down from a pass by McGuire, who had a stormer and Hardaker had what would have been his hat-trick ruled out by the video refs, who decided he was tackled short, after Child had indicated a try.
Sinfield landed a well-taken drop goal 10 minutes from time before Rob Burrow went over from Hardaker’s pass and Ablett – on his 250th Leeds appearance – completed the try haul with a dummy and step, Sinfield converting both.
Warrington struck to their guns long after the game had gone and Leeds could have had more tries, but for some desperate defence.
The penalty count finished 5-1 in Leeds’ favour (4-1 in the first half).
Other than having two decisions overturned by the video referees and some confusion over what was a knock-on, Child handled the game well.
Mitch Garbutt made his first start for Leeds, stepping up off the bench into the front-row and having a towering game.
Adam Cuthbertson moved to the loose-forward slot in place of Jamie Jones-Buchanan, following his season-ending injury in last week’s semi-final.
Jimmy Keinhorst was also restored to the starting line-up and Brad Singleton was a second-half substitute.
The second half was delayed while medics, including Leeds doctor Jon Power and ambulance staff, tended to a youngster – Charlie – who was hurt playing for Leeds Underdogs during one of the half-time games.
Warrington came out to warm-up and it was good to see Ashton Sims, among others, joining the applause when the youngster was stretchered off.