Five days after their makeshift side pushed Betfred Super League champions St Helens all the way in the Challenge Cup, injury hit Rhinos gave another good account of themselves as they went down 19-6 to last year’s table-toppers Wigan Warriors.
Leeds could not be faulted for effort and they defended hard, despite conceding four tries, but the lack of a play-maker was costly.
Last month’s signing Kyle Eastmond came in to make his debut at scrum-half, with Rhyse Martin continuing as an emergency stand-off.
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He had a quiet first half, kicking only once, slipping out a couple of nice inside passes and making some tackles, including a fine effort to stop Zak Hardaker after he had dragged John Bateman down, but the England man managed to offload.
The dual-code international was more involved after the break, almost immediately forcing a drop out and then, in the subsequent set, handling in the move which led to Rhinos’ try.
The game was an arm wrestle, with – particularly in the first 40 – very few stoppages and only limited try-scoring opportunities.
Wigan – who also have a lengthy injury list – spent the opening quarter pinned in their own territory before scoring on their first attack and added a second, through great awareness by Hardaker, to go in at the break eight points ahead.
A stunning tackle by Luke Briscoe just before the break kept Leeds in the contest, they cut the gap immediately afterwards and were in contention until seven minutes from time. Rhinos made a positive start and it was 18 minutes before Wigan got in their 20, but – predictably that led to the opening try.
Jack Broadbent offloaded to Jackson Hastings on the first tackle in Rhinos’ half, Hastings’ kick then led to a drop out and Wigan got a repeat set and eventually the pressure told when Hastings’ pass found Liam Farrell and he went round Alex Sutcliffe to score.
Other than that, Sutcliffe stood up well, particularly in defence.
Leeds had dominated territory up until then, without looking like scoring.
They got close to Wigan’s line often enough and a kick and chase by Kruise Leeming forced a drop-out, but other than that the last-tackle plays were poor with two knock-ons, Rhinos being tackled in possession three times and a kick going straight to a defender.
Wigan began to gain some territory after the try, but there wasn’t a hint of another score until six minutes before the break when Hardaker spotted there was no full-back in place, kicked over the defence and ran through to touch down.
It was smart play by Hardaker, who had realised Leeds were a man down with James Donaldson receiving treatment.
Luke Briscoe did brilliantly to prevent Hardaker scoring again in the final minute of the half.
It was a similar build-up, this time Hastings kicking ahead for the ex-Leeds full-back, who was set to go between the posts, but Briscoe came across and forced the ball loose.
Six points then would have left Rhinos with too much to do, but they cut the deficit to two within six minutes of the resumption.
Eastmond’s kick on the last forced a drop out and from that, his long ball found Luke Briscoe who surged towards the line, then slipped a lovely pass inside to his makeshift centre Alex Mellor, who swooped over for a try which Martin improved.
Against St Helens, they had kept things very tight and got their points by attacking down the middle.
Wigan were ready for that and did a good job of defending it. Mellor’s try came from the first time Leeds had moved the ball wide and was the first points conceded by Wigan in more than four halves of rugby.
Having worked so hard to get back into it, Leeds shot themselves in the foot at the end of the third quarter.
Martin failed to find touch with a penalty – after a high shot on Broadbent – and then, having earlier made two try-saving tackles on Morgan Smithies – missed Hastings as he dummied over on the last for the visitors’ third unconverted try.
There were only six points in it until the 73rd minute when referee Chris Kendall awarded a handover to Wigan for Mellor not playing the ball properly – though that was overly picky as he was clearly hurt – and Hastings sent Farrell over in the resulting set.
Leeds had 12 senior players unavailable – 11 injured and with forward Zane Tetevano beginning his four-game ban after his sending off against Saints.
Rhinos also had five players aged 22 or younger in the starting line-up and a 17- and 19-year-old on the bench, with Corey Hall, 18, an unused substitute.
Again, it was invaluable experience and the youngsters don’t look out of place at the top level, but Leeds are having to throw too many of them into the team at once. Broadbent had another assured game at full-back and there was a big effort in the middle of the field by substitute Jarrod O’Connor.
Forward Mikolaj Oledzki, called up this week into the England training squad, gave his all and both wingers – Tom and Luke Briscoe – had good games.
The penalty count was six-all (3-3 in the first half) and Wigan received three set restarts to Leeds’ one.
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