Boxing Day games come too early in preparations to provide an accurate indication of how teams will fare when the real business starts, but Wildcats already look like being much more competitive in 2016.
They were the better team on the day, in awful conditions and thoroughly deserved to lift the Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge Trophy after a 14-6 success.
Leeds, closing a calendar year in which they won every available major prize, looked like a group of players who haven’t yet done much pre-season work with ball in hand.
They defended strongly, but struggled to put Wakefield under real pressure and were 14 points down, with 15 minutes left, when they scored their only try, Jordan Lilley converting after Rob Burrow had put Carl Ablett in.
Rhinos had enough possession and territory once they got into the game at the end of the first quarter, but made a steady succession of errors, which was understandable in driving rain, on a very wet pitch.
Wakefield appeared more ready for a game. They have had more players in training for longer and the hard work being done by boss Brian Smith showed signs of paying off.
Wildcats did a better job of handling the conditions, were well-organised and defended with impressive commitment. Halves Jacob Miller and Liam Finn kicked well and some of their new signings, particularly Anthony England, Tinirau Arona and Ben Jones-Bishop, were particularly strong.
England scored their first try, after 17 minutes, after a good carry and offload from Arona. He was teed up by Finn, who added the extras to complete the first-half scoring.
Wildcats showed how much they wanted to win the game when Jordan Tansey, playing in the middle, booted a penalty 12 minutes into the second period, soon after they had tapped a similar effort and knocked-on.
Six minutes later, Miller grubbered over the line, Danny McGuire – Rhinos’ captain – overran the ball and Scott Anderson touched down for a try which Tansey converted.
Smith was “very pleased” with his side’s work, though he felt the game could have been abandoned at half-time or early in the second period.
He said: “The boys have been talking about how good they feel about the way they went about their stuff on a tough day.
“Those conditions would have been tough at any time in the season; for the first game, to play at that intensity in those conditions was a very big ask.”
Smith added: “We had a lot of smart players. I was very pleased with that football intelligence aspect.
“There seems to be a bit of a bond there with them already as a group.
“Fitness was an important issue for us, but because of the taxing circumstances it is pretty hard to draw a proper line on exactly where we are.
“Everybody was entitled to go home at half-time in my opinion, for the first game of the season.”
The Boxing Day result means nothing in the wider scheme of things, but will give Wakefield some confidence after a torrid 12 months.
Similarly, it may be a reality check for Leeds following their treble-winning season.
Full-back Ashton Golding was man of the match for Rhinos, as he had been in their previous game against New Zealand two months ago.
He made some exciting breaks from deep and handled well in the damp, despite being tackled into touch to concede the scrum which led to the visitors’ second try.
Others to impress were Jordan Lilley, Mitch Garbutt and Brad Singleton. Debutant prop Keith Galloway displayed some power, but struggled with his handling and it was a tough introduction for his fellow Aussie, hooker Beau Falloon.
He had to leave the action for a concussion assessment after three minutes and did not return following a similar spell off the field five minutes before the interval, though there was no concern afterwards.
Wakefield lost their No 9 Scott Moore to a biceps injury after the first set and Anderson had a couple of spells in the blood-bin. They survived 10 minutes with only 12 players when Tom Johnstone was sin-binned for denying Ash Handley a quick play-the-ball, after Mitch Achurch had supported Golding’s break. Both clubs named 21 players, but agreed to use only 19, with unlimited changes from those. Rhinos gave a brief run to 17-year-old substitute Cameron Smith, who achieved the rare feat of stepping straight from the under-16 scholarship into a first-team fixture, without having played for the academy.
Ryan Jones came on 10 minutes from time, along with Championship player of the year Jordan Baldwinson. It was a surprise he wasn’t given more of an opportunity.
Leeds boss Brian McDermott reflected: “We got out of it with no injuries and the fellas had a run about. We are in the middle of pre-season so we probably got out of it what we needed, but I am not going to call it a hit-out and say that’s the start of our pre-season friendlies or warm-up games.”
Contributions from Leeds’ youngsters gave McDermott most satisfaction.
He added: “They showed some energy and some smart stuff as well.
“Jordan Lilley again impressed and I thought Ashton Golding was very good. He fielded some very difficult balls and had some traffic coming his way while doing that.
“It was a nice day for Keith Galloway to get used to the British weather, wet grounds and wet balls. Beau Falloon looked half-decent in spells, before he got knocked out twice. He is all right, he won’t have any long-term issues there.”
It was the first time in a decade Rhinos’ groundstaff did not need to use frost sheets or undersoil heating to ensure the Boxing Day game went ahead, though they worked through Christmas Day to combat the heavy rain.
Referee Richard Silverwood sensibly let the game flow as much as he could. The penalty count finished 6-5 in Rhinos’ favour (3-2 in the first half).
Leeds Rhinos: Golding, Briscoe, Keinhorst, Moon, Handley, McGuire, Burrow, Galloway, Falloon, Singleton, Achurch, Ablett, Cuthbertson. Used subs: Garbutt, Walters, Baldwinson, Lilley, Smith, Jones. Unused: Oledski, Roberts.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: Jones-Bishop, Lyne, Arundel, B Tupou, Johnstone, Miller, Finn, Scruton, Moore, Anderson, Kirmond, Ashurst, Sio. Used subs: Arona, England, Yates, Howarth, Gibson, Tansey. Unused: Hall, Walton.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield).