THEY lost yet another Challenge Cup final, but Leeds Rhinos won back their pride as the new Wembley finally hosted a game to remember.
Humiliated by Warrington Wolves last year when they totally failed to perform, the real Leeds turned up on this occasion, though their all wasn’t quite enough.
Against hot favourites Wigan Warriors, Rhinos produced a performance full of character, determination and fighting spirit in a thrilling clash which was much closer than the 28-18 final scoreline suggests.
Leeds have now lost five straight finals and seven of their last eight. At 16-0 behind after 29 minutes, they were staring down the barrel of a hiding to match the one handed out to London Broncos – 52-16 – the last time they won the trophy, 12 years ago.
Their fightback, which closed the gap to two points with seven minutes left, was as good as anything Rhinos have produced over the last silverware-laden few seasons.
And they could feel hard done to at the end. Perhaps it’s a bit strong to suggest the result was an injustice, but Leeds were let down by the officials.
Wigan’s final two tries – both of which were converted – should not have stood. Take 12 points away from Warriors and Leeds win the game.
Phil Bentham is the referee who has impressed this reporter the most in 2011 and it was refreshing to see a new face in the middle. The occasion, though, seemed to get to him.
For example, his failure to award Leeds a penalty for a dangerous tackle by Jeff Lima on Brett Delaney. The Rhinos man lost the ball and Bentham decided it was a knock-on.
Bentham should certainly have noticed that Lee Mossop’s pass, which sent Lima over 14 minutes from time when Wigan led only 16-14, was a metre forward. How near-side touch-judge Robert Hicks – who didn’t impress when he refereed Leeds’ defeat at Harlequins seven days earlier – failed to spot it is a mystery. Hicks should feel disappointed with his performance when he views the replay as he made an equally poor call in the closing moments.
Leeds rallied again and at 22-18 with three minutes left, the game was in the balance. Brett Finch kicked ahead, Josh Charnley and Rob Burrow chased and the ball went off the Wigan man into touch.
This was again on Hicks’ side of the field and he was well placed, but head and feed went to Wigan. It was the wrong decision and it proved a game-breaker.
In the set from the scrum, Thomas Leuluai forced his way over from acting-half. In this writer’s view the ball was dropped in the act of touching down. After numerous replays, video referee Steve Ganson awarded the try on ‘benefit of the doubt’.
Leeds lost by two points to Wigan at DW Stadium earlier in the season when video ref Ganson decided there was no doubt and disallowed Danny McGuire’s late touchdown.
Warriors also scored a try in that game off a forward pass.
Decisions didn’t rob Leeds of the cup; dropped balls and missed tackles were just as costly, but such a big game deserved better from the officials.
The majority view in the media area was that Wigan deserved to win. They were certainly superior in the opening 30 minutes and 16-0 reflected that.
However, Leeds were better for the rest of the match. They were on top for longer, but not by as much, though right up until the final try they looked capable of snatching it.
After a one-sided opening Leeds needed someone to put some doubt in Wigan minds and it arrived in the shape of substitute Burrow, who made such an impact he was runner-up in the voting for the Lance Todd Trophy.
Lima collected eight votes, Burrow received six. He took Leeds forward, won an important penalty, which led to their first try and had Wigan back-pedalling in defence. He also made a wonderful, try-saving tackle on Sam Tomkins early in the second half.
Skipper Kevin Sinfield missed three of four conversion attempts – including his first, which struck a post. That’s noteworthy because it is so unusual, but the rest of his performance was typical Sinfield. He handled in the build-up to Leeds’ first two tries, tackled his socks off and retained belief when all seemed lost.
Like Burrow and Ryan Bailey he now has four Challenge Cup loser’s medals. He deserves another chance and it’ll be a travesty if he finishes his career without getting his hands on the sport’s most famous silverware.
Like his fellow centre Kallum Watkins, Carl Ablett came through a pre-match injury scare and he was a deserved try scorer. Ablett is growing into the centre role week on week. He provided the final pass for the first of his winger Ryan Hall’s brace, which took him to 99 for the club.
On the other flank, Ben Jones-Bishop’s finish for Rhinos’ second try was world class. He made a thrilling break just after the deficit had been cut to four points late in the match.
Jones-Bishop kicked ahead and Danny McGuire just failed to gather, in a race with Sam Tomkins. Had Rhinos scored then, different coloured ribbons may have adorned the trophy.
Losing in the manner they did was tough on Rhinos, who couldn’t have given any more. Honourable mentions should also go to second-rowers Jamie Jamie Jones-Buchanan – a key figure in the fightback – and Delaney, while Danny Buderus had a big second spell.
Leeds could have done things better. Defensively they couldn’t cope with Wigan’s early onslaught, a couple of kicks went out on the full and others were fired straight at Tomkins. There were also couple of soft knock-ons.
But, unlike a year ago, Rhinos’ players could come off at the end feeling they had done themselves justice. If other key figures had done better, maybe....
Wigan are a quality side, though some of their tactics leave a bad taste. They were very impressive as Charnley, Lima and Joel Tomkins – with a classic long-range effort from an assist by his brother – crossed early on.
Pat Richards goaled twice, but Leeds hit back when Hall got over after Chris Clarkson, Sinfield (twice), Jones-Buchanan, McGuire and Ablett had handled.
In the next set, Jones-Buchanan made a break and then Sinfield was again twice involved, along with Webb and Burrow, as the ball was worked to Jones-Bishop and he finished in great style.
McGuire and Webb carved out Ablett’s score on the hour and – after Lima’s second – McGuire sent Hall in again.
Rhinos were very disciplined. The penalty count was 5-2 in their favour, after being 3-1 at the interval.