TOOTHLESS Leeds Rhinos avoided some unwanted history at the death last night, but a 28-6 defeat by Wigan Warriors illustrated some serious problems for last year’s treble winners.
Rhinos were heading for their first nilling since 1998, but Zak Hardaker – one of the few Leeds men to emerge with any credit – crossed on the final play.
Liam Sutcliffe, Beau Falloon and Brett Ferres were involved in the build-up and Hardaker added the extras to make it 28-6.
It was Leeds’ fourth defeat in five Super League rounds and, despite the late face-saver, one of their worst attacking performances since Brian McDermott became coach in 2011.
Wigan were poor for three-quarters of a disappointing game, but they were better than Leeds throughout and it became a rout once they had put the result beyond doubt.
It could have been an even worse scoreline had Wigan got their attack into gear sooner than the 56th minute.
It was 6-0 up to then, but Leeds collapsed following the hosts’ second try. It’s hard to believe this was a rematch between last year’s Grand Finalists. Wigan weren’t much better than average, but Leeds were dreadful.
They posed no threat on attack and their defence went to pieces in the second half. The fact Leeds were in touch on the scoreboard for as long as they were was largely down to an incredible series of errors by Wigan when they got close to Rhinos’ line, though the visitors did defend strongly for almost an hour.
The champions turned down an easy two points mid-way through the half, but struggled for go-forward and relied on penalties to get over half-way.
Once they got there they lacked attacking ideas and opportunities were lost through errors or kicks early in the tackle count and the try, when it came, was a surprise.
Rhinos couldn’t use injuries as an excuse. They were a long way below full-strength, with Joel Moon and Brad Delaney the latest to join the injury list, but it was still a strong 17.
Six players weren’t available, but four returned to give Leeds a much tougher look than for recent games.
Jimmy Keinhorst started in the left-centre in place of Moon and Mitch Achurch – after illness – returned to take over from Delaney in the second-row.
Falloon, who suffered a broken toe late in pre-season, made his long-awaited debut on the bench.
He was alongside Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who had not played a game at any level since a quad tear in last July’s Challenge Cup semi-final win over St Helens.
Remarkably, Ash Handley was on the right-wing despite leaving the ground on crutches just seven days earlier after suffering a painful bang to a kneecap in the win over Huddersfield.
Wigan also had their problems, which got worse just before kick-off when George Williams withdrew due to a hamstring problem.
Sean O’Loughlin moved to stand-off, Greg Burke to loose-forward and Nick Gregson came in among the substitutes for his debut.
Wigan had a try ruled out after 12 minutes when Liam Farrell crossed from Matty Smith’s pass. Referee Ben Thaler thought it was a try, but asked video assistant Richard Silverwood to check and he decided Dan Sarginson had obstructed Kallum Watkins.
That came on the play after Tony Clubb had been held up over the line by Ferres and Hardaker.
Wigan, on the back of three penalties and a couple of repeat sets, created a series of half-chances early on, but wasted them through poor handling, with Dom Manfredi, Sam Powell and John Bateman all turning the ball over near Leeds’ line.
That pattern continued, with Sarginson – on a couple of occasions – and Liam Farrell guilty of mistakes which let Leeds off the hook after decent approach play.
Rhinos struggled to get over the half-way line, though a terrific offload from Adam Cuthbertson allowed Jordan Lilley to make some ground.
Leeds should have done better when Ben Flower went high on Rob Burrow to give the visitors an attacking opportunity, but Mitch Garbutt dropped Keith Galloway’s offload.
Then Sarginson couldn’t take Manfredi’s pass deep in Wigan territory and Leeds could have taken two points when Burrow was held down in front of the posts. Instead they tapped the penalty and Liam Sutcliffe kicked early in the count for Handley to chase, but Josh Charnley cleared the danger.
Up to that point Rhinos’ defence had been good, but their kicks went straight to the opposition. On 28 minutes Burrow managed to split a couple of defenders with a long punt, but Manfredi picked up and weaved 80 metres almost to the line, before Hardaker managed to pull him down.
Manfredi beat five attempted tackles, but Bateman got the reward for his brilliance by nipping over from acting-half.
Matty Smith added the extras and that completed the first-half scoring. Leeds only showed a spark of invention on the final play of the half, when they kept the ball alive in thrilling fashion before the Wigan defence managed to smother Kallum Watkins.
Jones-Buchanan had gone close to surging over on the previous tackle. A few minutes earlier they received a penalty in Wigan territory, but Galloway lost possession. Charnley, returning Sutcliffe’s kick which failed to find touch from a few metres infield, almost copied Manfredi, but Hardaker made a fine tackle.
Right at the start of the second half Keinhorst went close, then Hardaker’s kick forced a goal-line drop-out, but from that Cuthbertson offloaded straight to Powell.
There was a skirmish when Handley tried to shove Charnley back in-goal, but tipped him over the horizontal.
Wigan made big metres in the set from the penalty and Smith’s kick on the last almost put Farrell over, but he knocked-on.
The second try didn’t come until the 56th minute. Bateman’s pass to Ryan Sutton in the build-up looked to be forward, but Leeds’ right-side defence should have kept Gildart out.
Smith could not convert, but 10-0 looked like a winning lead. Wigan obviously thought so because they turned down a possible two points a couple of minutes later.
That paid off as some good work by Taulima Tautai and a brilliant offload from Anthony Gelling created a try at the corner.
A break by Charnley set up field position for Clubb to crash over and then Gelling scored a solo try, Smith converting all three.
Leeds desperately need Danny McGuire back. Without him a team packed with strike power look frighteningly blunt.
The penalty count finished 9-7 in Wigan’s favour (5-4 to Leeds in the first half).