LEEDS RHINOS need to find a cutting edge if they are to have any joy in this year’s play-offs.
Last night’s 21-6 loss at Wigan was their fourth successive Super League defeat and the last time that happened was in 2006.
The slump then totalled five straight defeats as it also included a Challenge Cup semi-final reverse by Huddersfield.
This time the league losses have been punctuated by wins in a Cup semi-final and final, but Leeds have slumped to sixth and are on course for their worst finish on the table since 1996.
The defeat at DW Stadium was Rhinos’ ninth of the campaign and only their second by more than a converted score.
Rhinos were second-best in every department before the break, going in 14-0 down, but made a fight of it in the second half.
They applied some pressure after half-time, but poor ball control again let them down and they lacked the guile to break through a strong Wigan defence, their touchdown coming off a series of kicks.
The positive was another strong defensive effort, under huge pressure at times.
Rhinos were without some key players, who are likely to be available for the play-offs.
Jimmy Keinhorst was recalled from his supposedly season-long loan at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats to replace the suspended Joel Moon in Rhinos’ left-centre.
Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow were missing for the second successive game and Ian Kirke again failed to make the team.
Kirke has a slight hamstring issue, while McGuire has not yet recovered from the rib injury he suffered late in the Challenge Cup final two weeks ago.
Burrow limped out of the final stages at Wembley due to a persistent groin problem and also wasn’t risked, though they were both in the initial 19 and would probably have played had it been make-or-break.
Rhinos have missed both of them, though a couple of games for Liam Sutcliffe in the halves has been a positive and he did score Leeds’ lone try for the second successive game.
Stevie Ward was among the substitutes in place of Robbie Ward, who wasn’t used last week. Brad Singleton, who spent the whole of the defeat by St Helens warming the bench, was again one of the replacements.
He got into the action as early as the 31st minute this time and – perhaps spurred by last week’s snub – made a strong contribution.
Rhinos had the first opportunity when Kevin Sinfield chipped to the corner on the last and Kallum Watkins – who had a strong game defensively – made a nice take, but Dan Sarginson managed to drag him down just short.
That was one of only two serious Leeds attacks in the opening 40 and the second came two minutes before the break.
An alarming number of handling errors allowed the hosts to get on a roll.
After both defences had bashed each other about for the opening 15 minutes Wigan took the lead with a well-crafted try to star young winger Joe Burgess, who judged Matty Smith’s kick to perfection.
That was tough on Jamie Peacock, who had made a sensational try-saving tackle on Matty Bowen, only to be penalised almost on his own line for a professional foul.
He’s 36 and made a brilliant cover tackle, so he probably got off as quickly as he could.
Zak Hardaker was penalised a few moments later for a hand on the ball when Bowen had possession.
That was the sort of thing St Helens were allowed to get away with last week and it must be difficult for players when successive games seem to be refereed differently.
Particularly in the first half this was a much faster game – and more entertaining – because there was less tolerance of messing around at the ruck, though it got more scrappy after the break.
Wigan doubled their lead on 23 minutes.
Hardaker took Sinfield’s pass 30 metres from his own line, created space as he shaped to kick, but then attempted to pass to Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
Instead, he hurled the ball straight at Matt Smith who had a walk-in before adding his second conversion to make it 12-0.
Hardaker was booed by the Wigan fans throughout and there were disgraceful cheers when he was whacked across the face in the second half.
Leeds did have a chance on 38 when Carl Ablett got to within a few metres of the line after nice handling by Hardaker and Watkins, but then Sinfield cross-kicked, Ryan Hall knocked the ball back and it took a tackle by Sutcliffe to prevent Jack Hughes going the full length.
Wigan extended their lead after the hooter with a long-range Smith goal, after Leeds’ conceded a fourth penalty for interference, Peacock being the offender.
Rhinos’ try, on 46 minutes, was a contender for the most bizarre of the season. Keinhorst hacked a Wigan pass forward, then kicked again, Hall hacked on twice, Mitch Achurch did the same and then Hall picked up and slipped the ball to Sutcliffe, who dived over at the corner.
Three times Wigan players tried to dive on the ball, but couldn’t.
Video referee Richard Silverwood managed to unravel it all and gave the nod and Sinfield converted from wide out.
Rhinos had the wind in their sails at that point, thanks to a flurry of penalties and an interception by Watkins, but they couldn’t make the pressure tell.
That’s when the experience of McGuire and Burrow may have made a difference.
Leeds had an escape with 17 minutes left when Sarginson seemed to have scored at the corner, but the video referee ruled a knock-on. But there was no reprieve with nine left. Sinfield found touch with a drop-out a few minutes earlier, but this time it didn’t work, Wigan took possession 10 metres out and Smith and Sean O’Loughlin worked the ball to Ben Flower, who finished powerfully. Smith converted and completed the scoring with a drop goal in the final seconds.
The penalty count finished 8-7 in Leeds’ favour (4-2 to Wigan in the first half).
One thing Rhinos could take heart from was the fact that a year ago to the night they won 20-6 at Wigan who a month later were crowned as champions.
Rhinos under-19s take on Wigan at Orrell today (2pm).
Centre/second-row Brad England has signed for Salford Red Devils from next season.
“I’ve been playing rugby league since I was small and it’s been my ambition to play in the Super League for a long time,” England said. “I’m going to have to work hard and it’ll be a real challenge.”