Leeds Rhinos 34 Wakefield Trinity 6: Richie Myler stars as hosts retain Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge
A dominant second half performance enabled Leeds Rhinos to retain the Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge trophy after an inexperienced Wakefield Trinity side gave a good account of themselves in the opening 40 minutes.
Leeds led only 10-6 at half-time, having gone behind briefly before replying with back-to-back tries, but then scored 24 unanswered points to record an ultimately convincing - if not very meaningful - 34-6 success.
It was a typical early pre-season encounter and the two biggest cheers of the day came late on; first with 15 minutes left as 17-year-old Jack Sinfield - son of Rhinos’ record points scorer Kevin Sinfield - came off the bench to replace scrum-half Aidan Sezer. It was matched four minutes later when he landed an angled conversion after Tom Briscoe had scored.
There was a stark contrast in the clubs’ approach to the game.
Rhinos went with possibly their strongest side since the Festive Challenge began back in 1997, but Trinity fielded only a smattering of likely first-choice players, alongside some academy graduates and a couple of trialists.
Leeds were in something of a no-win situation, against much weaker opposition, but with 48 days still to go to their Betfred Super League opener at home to Warrington Wolves, they won’t be too concerned by a few rough edges in their performance.
It was a first run out for Rhinos’ new halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, but they played together at Canberra Raiders and already have an understanding.
Sezer scored a try - putting on some footwork close to the line and carrying a couple of defenders over with him - and kicked three goals.
He was also at the heart of an encouraging passage of play at the start of the second half when he sent man oft he match Richie Myler into space and the full-back’s smart pass finished powerfully by acting-captain Ash Handley.
Austin moved the ball around nicely at times in an solid first performance for the club. Though he played in the pack at times for Warrington last year, he looked very much at home in his natural position of stand-off.
Bizarrely, Austin is actually a Great Britain winger, having played there on the 2018 southern hemisphere tour. Early in the second period he intercepted from Trinity’s Lewis Murphy almost on Rhinos’ line, with clear country ahead, but common sense prevailed and he made no attempt to go the distance, though Leeds did score in that set.
Rhinos’ third recruit, James Bentley, got through some hard work in the right second-row, with a few nice touches.
Wakefield did better than could have been expected with such a fringe lineup, especially in the first half. They were enthusiastic and well-organised, though not strong enough to cause Leeds many problems with their attack.
New signing Lee Gaskell was heavily involved at stand-off, but his half-back partner Brad Walker gave a good account of himself in an unfamiliar role.
Murphy, a young winger recently promoted into the senior team, showed lots of promise, scoring Trinity’s try and keeping Jack Broadbent out in the second half.
Thomas Minns, who began his career at Leeds, put in a good hit on Handley in the opening exchanges, playing inside another trialist, former rugby union winger John Davetanivalu.
He allowed a drop out from Austin to bounce into touch in the first half, but later made a fine take, under heavy pressure, from a kick by Sezer.
Trinity went ahead after nine minutes following a Rhinos mistake, Kruise Leeming’s pass on the last, deep in Leeds territory, rebounding off Broadbent to Murphy, whose pace did the rest. Walker converted from the touchline, but Rhinos replied almost immediately through Sezer after Trinity turned over the ball on their own line.
Trinity’s restart went out on the full, they were penalised for obstruction in the subsequent set and Leeds went ahead when Handley stepped through from Myler’s pass after Mikolaj Oledzki and Sezer had handled.
That completed the first half scoring, though Trinity could have at least been level at the break, but for some strong defence by Austin and Broadbent to barge Murphy into touch from Walker’s pass.
That was in the 38th minute, moments after Rhinos’ James Donaldson had been sin-binned for a late tackle. If Rhinos are going to achieve anything in 2022, they’ll need to keep 13 players on the pitch more often.
Rhinos extended their advantage, through Handley’s second touchdown, while down to 12 men and Harry Newman, who had a very good second half, added their fourth try, on 45 minutes.
He crawled over from a pass by Myler after Austin had turned the ball inside. Myler also provided the final pass for a try by Briscoe, playing in the left centre and Sinfield completed the scoring three minutes from time with his second conversion, after Newman powered in from Austin’s offload.
The penalty count was six-five in Trinity’s favour (four-three to Leeds before the break).
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Broadbent, Newman, Briscoe, Handley, Austin, Sezer,Oledzki, Leeming, Tetevano, Mellor, Bentley, Smith. Subs Dwyer, Donaldson, Gannon, Thompson, O’Connor, Sinfield, Tindall.
Wakefield Trinity: Butterworth, Murphy, Minns, Hall, Davetanivalu, Walker, Gaskell, Aydin, Bowes, Arona, Ashurst, Tanginoa, Crowther. Subs Hood, Fifita, Farrar, Poching, Abraham.
Referee: Jack Smith (Warrington).