LEEDS RHINOS’ unbeaten start to the season ended on their HJ Stadium bogey ground last night.
Rhinos haven’t won at Warrington Wolves in Super League since 2010 and they never really threatened to end that poor run, despite competing well in a tough contest.
The visitors were without full-back Zak Hardaker. He was left out following revelations he – and academy forward Elliot Minchella – are to be interviewed by police over an alleged assault in Leeds last month.
Last season’s under-19s player of the year Ashton Golding took over as the last line of defence.
For the second successive game Rhinos trailed 12-0 at the break, but there was to be no comeback this time, though they did battle hard in the final quarter and had Warrington rocking for a spell.
Leeds defended strongly for much of the game, but were undone by a couple of crucial lapses and an error near their opponents’ line.
On attack they had spells of pressure, but lost too much ball in good attacking positions and rarely looked like breaking through, though they did score the best try of the night, a superb touchdown from inside their own territory.
Warrington were the better side and deserved their 18-6 victory – though a few things went their way – but Leeds weren’t far off.
Rhinos were fortunate to only have been 12 points adrift at half-time of the game at Hull eight days earlier, but last night the opening period was closer than the scoreline suggested.
The home side had the first opportunity, after nine minutes, when Kevin Sinfield was penalised for a grapple tackle and Daryl Clark darted over the line in the resulting set, but was held up by Paul Aiton and Jamie Peacock.
Tom Briscoe’s forceful run took him close to the line and then Kallum Watkins just failed to hold on going for an interception in Warrington’s half.
But after an even first 16 minutes, Leeds’ defence fell apart to concede the opening try out of nothing.
Kevin Penny, whose return to the big time has been one of the stories of the season, picked the ball up close to the touchline 20 out and cut infield to cross close to the posts.
He ran behind a couple of his teammates and the touchdown would certainly have been ruled out in previous years, but the rules have been relaxed this season and after a long look video referees Ian Smith and Richard Silverwood confirmed the score.
Leeds couldn’t have any real complaints. Nobody was impeded and there were enough defenders between Penny and the line to prevent the try, which Stefan Ratchford improved.
Desperate defence by Penny and Ratchford pulled Ryan Hall down a few metres out at the end of a spell of Leeds pressure, then the winger should have scored from Carl Ablett’s pass, but he spilled the ball with the line open.
Ablett was playing in the left-centre by that stage, after Joel Moon had gone off with concussion.
He was assessed for 10 minutes, as per the new rules, but wasn’t able to return, which was a setback for the visitors and reduced them to 16 fit players for most of the match.
Seven minutes before the break Briscoe managed to hack Gareth O’Brien’s kick dead ahead of an onrushing Matty Russell.
But following the dropout O’Brien grubbered between the posts and Ratchford reacted first to follow through and get the ball down, again confirmed by the video referees, though there was strong suspicion of a knock-on. The same player converted.
Leeds had to defend under fierce pressure early in the second half and then failed to find a way through following a rare penalty their way and a goal line drop out.
That proved costly as Warrington took a firmer grip on the game on 54 minutes, from a mistake by Sinfield.
His pass near Rhinos’ line was picked up by O’Brien and he slipped the ball to Ryan Atkins, who crossed unopposed for a killer score.
Ratchford’s goal made it 18-0 and it looked like that was that, but Leeds gave themselves a chance on the hour with a stunning score. Hall played a one-two with Sinfield and then shipped out a brilliant offload to Watkins, who made ground and then got the ball away to Briscoe, who was too quick for the cover.
Sinfield added the extras, then put up a high kick from which Brad Singleton touched down, but referee Phil Bentham said there was a knock-on and his video helpers agreed.
Ratchford missed with a penalty shot eight minutes from time – after Golding pulled back Matty Russell – and Chris Bridge missed with a drop goal soon afterwards. Singleton again made an impact for Rhinos and Adam Cuthbertson had a strong game up front for Rhinos, though some of their go-to players couldn’t come up with the goods when it mattered.
Golding’s inclusion in place of Hardaker was the first change to Rhinos’ starting line-up this season.
It was the rookie’s first Super League start and only his second appearance in the senior side after he made his debut off the bench in last August’s infamous pre-Challenge Cup final defeat at London Broncos.
The 18-year-old England academy full-back had an outstanding pre-season and was recently given a two-week break to freshen up.
Though he’s still at school and not a member of the full-time squad, he is tipped for big things and he may well have got some game time this season anyway, but it’s doubtful Rhinos’ management would have chosen Warrington away as the time to throw him in.
He did well in tough circumstances and will have benefitted from the experience, but there’s no doubt Rhinos are a better team with Hardaker in their ranks. Brett Delaney, who played his first game of the year on dual-registration for Hunslet Hawks last Sunday, came in on the bench in place of the luckless Mitch Achurch, whose impressive start to the season was derailed by a leg injury.
Warrington welcomed back Bridge and Leeds-born Atkins, who replaced Joel Monaghan and Gary Wheeler. The penalty count finished 7-1 in Warrington’s favour (3-1 at half-time), though it was 5-1 at one stage and they did get the 50-50 calls.
St Helens needed a supercharged second half show to maintain their 100 per cent First Utility Super League record with a 30-20 win at Widnes.
Both sides were without several key players but Widnes deserved their 14-6 interval lead before the champions ran in 24 second half points.
Lance Hohaia crossed for two of the visitors’ five tries, with others from the outstanding Atelea Vea, Luke Thompson and Jordan Turner. Travis Burns kicked five goals.