During their six title-winning play-offs campaigns Leeds Rhinos have come back from drubbings as bad or worse than their 40-20 defeat at Warrington Wolves.
Half of their Grand Final victories have followed a loss in their opening play-off, so all is not yet lost.
But what was expected to be a close contest at HJ Stadium instead saw Rhinos comprehensively outplayed in a one-sided second half and their confidence and character now face a massive test.
Friday’s sudden-death tie against St Helens will pit a team coming off the back of a tough, confidence-sapping defeat against one on a high from a big, morale-boosting win.
The past two years – when Leeds won away to Huddersfield Giants and Catalan Dragons – illustrate how tough it can be for the the team in the position Leeds face now.
They travelled to Cheshire in high spirits following a fine win at Wigan Warriors more than a week earlier and with a squad which was close to full-strength, missing only Stevie Ward due to injury from the first-choice roster.
For 40 minutes it was a real contest and only a couple of dubious decisions separated the teams at the interval, as Warrington went in 18-10 ahead.
But Leeds looked a tired outfit in the second period and Warrington took a stranglehold on the game they never looked like relinquishing.
Rhinos’ pack was out-muscled and the lack of game time built up by players like Brett Delaney, Danny McGuire, Ryan Bailey and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who have all recently returned from a long lay-off, appeared to take its toll.
Warrington looked the fresher side and were able to take the game away from Rhinos when they stepped on the gas in the third quarter.
Warrington second-rower Ben Westwood scored four tries, but wasn’t their most impressive player. That was substitute hooker Michael Monaghan, who came off the bench midway through the first half – at a time when Leeds looked to be getting on top – and ran the show in commanding fashion. He was well backed by half-back Lee Briers, who was a thorn in Rhinos’ side after the break, though he was lucky to be on the field by that stage.
With Leeds 10-6 up, Briers was scragged by Carl Ablett in possession on the final tackle, leading to what would have been a hand-over. As Ablett turned his back, Briers caught him – from behind – with a punch to the face. Ablett didn’t react, but his enraged team-mates moved in and there was a brief bout of pushing and shoving.
Punching has been treated by referees as a yellow card offence this season, following a crackdown agreed on by the coaches.
In Leeds’ last home game Ryan Bailey – who got a one-man ban – and Catalan winger Damien Blanch were sin-binned for punching and Huddersfield’s Joe Wardle was sent-off for the same offence in their Challenge Cup win over Leeds.
Briers’ attack was a nasty one, against an opponent caught off guard. It was right in front of referee James Child, but – to the surprise of everyone in the stadium and the fury of those of a blue and amber persuasion – the referee kept his cards in his pocket and awarded only a penalty.
Briers should certainly have been sin-binned and he couldn’t have argued if a red card had been produced. Had it been the other way around, Ablett would almost certainly have walked.
If there’s any consistency, Briers will be charged by the RFL, though an early guilty plea could see him avoid a ban and be eligible for Warrington’s semi-final.
Even if he is suspended that won’t do Rhinos any good. How the game would have panned out had Warrington been reduced to 12 men is unknown.
Child is an experienced referee, but struggled in charge of such a big game. He missed a forward pass in the build-up to Leeds’ second try and seemed to be affected by the hostile reaction to that from the home fans.
Just before half-time Ryan Hall made a break and passed inside to Kevin Sinfield, who tipped the ball on to Joel Moon.
Child reckoned the ball had gone forward – though it didn’t look it from the press box. At the end of the next set Westwood crashed over. Zak Hardaker chased back to get under Westwood and prevent the ball behind grounded. The tip possibly did touch the turf at one stage, though by that time Westwood had let go and was standing up.
Video referee Phil Bentham tossed a metaphorical coin and awarded a try on “benefit of the doubt”. Instead of being 16-12 up if Moon had crossed between the posts, Rhinos went in at the break 18-10 down. They failed to recover from either blow and Warrington dominated the second period. Rhinos will take some credit from being able to force a couple of tries out of their limited attacks, though on each occasion they immediately handed one back.
There was another curious decision ahead of Warrington’s fifth try. Briers’ kick seemed to be knocked towards the Leeds line by Joel Monaghan and Sinfield picked up. Child awarded a scrum with the feed to Warrington. If Monaghan had the last touch it should have been play-on and if it was Hall who had tapped it on – as the referee presumably thought – then Sinfield was offside. So did the officials cost Leeds the game? No, they may not have done their job to a high standard, but neither did Rhinos, who struggled to go-forward and made too many errors.
Warrington led through Westwood’s first, but a brilliant Rob Burrow run carved out a try for Kallum Watkins, Sinfield converting and then touching down himself after Burrow, Jones-Bishop and Watkins handled. Simon Grix and the Westwood/Bentham combination gave Warrington a healthy interval lead and Westwood and Briers crossed in the third quarter before Hardaker scored from Sinfield’s reverse pass.
But Westwood went in for a fourth and though Sinfield again put Hardaker over and added the extras, Warrington had the last laugh through Ryan Atkins. Stefan Ratchford and Briers each kicked three goals.
Warrington Wolves: Stefan Ratchford, Chris Riley, Chris Bridge, Ryan Atkins, Joel Monaghan, Lee Briers, Simon Grix, Chris Hill, Mickey Higham, Paul Wood, Trent Waterhouse, Ben Westwood, Ben Harrison. Subs (all used) Adrian Morley, Michael Monaghan, Garreth Carvell, Mike Cooper.