AT THE end of a fascinating West Yorkshire derby two points separated Leeds Rhinos from Wakefield Trinity on the scoreboard and in the league table.
Those points may be crucial when it comes to the shake-up at the end of the campaign, but the margin is an indication of how much what was once a chasm in standards between two of sport’s oldest rivals has narrowed.
Rhinos were deserved victors, but Trinity gave an excellent account of themselves in difficult circumstances.
Leeds, who finished 27 points clear of Wakefield at the end of the regular season just two years ago, were close to full strength with only long-term casualties Jimmy Keinhorst and Brett Delaney and Rob Burrow, who damaged a shoulder against Leigh Centurions eight days earlier, unavailable through injury.
Due to injury, Trinity were missing captain Danny Kirmond, play-maker Jacob Miller, key forward Tinirau Arona, free-scoring winger Tom Johnstone, centre Ashley Gibson and long-termer Jon Molloy and had two days less recovery time.
Craig Huby was rested and Reece Lyne also dropped out and they were also hampered by the loss of their most in-form forward, David Fifita, quite early in the game. The fact they could compete so strongly with such influential players missing was an indication of how far Wakefield have progressed since Chris Chester was appointed coach at Easter last year – as was their disappointment at the end.
Trinity went into the game on a seven-match winning run and led by 10 points after only 11 minutes so will regard it as one that got away.
They played well for the most part, particularly on defence and there was little between the teams, but Trinity never quite got their game into gear.
They were clinical in the opening moments, but didn’t really threaten Rhinos’ line in the first half after their two early tries.
In the second period they got in some good positions, but let the visitors off the hook with big errors when a try might have proved decisive.
An example came soon after the break when Scott Grix worked a one-two with Sam Williams to open a gap on Leeds’ left-edge, but the full-back hurled the final pass – aimed at Joe Arundel – into touch.
After that Wakefield, mainly on the back of penalties, got close to Leeds’ line on a number of occasions only to fumble the ball. Those looked like tired errors.
In the final seconds, as they desperately chased a winning score, they seemed to have stretched Rhinos’ defence, but Liam Finn’s pass went straight to Joel Moon.
Trinity were also punished for mistakes at the other end, two of Rhinos’ four tries coming after they failed to deal with high kicks.
Ben Jones-Bishop spilled Moon’s bomb close to his own line at 10-0 in the first half and Rhinos scored from the resulting scrum.
And then Jones-Bishop and Grix failed to deal with a kick from McGuire, moments after Leeds had taken the lead at the end of the third quarter and that led to the visitors’ fourth – and effectively game-winning – touchdown.
It was a shame for Grix who was a threat with ball in hand throughout. Kyle Wood, who scored the home side’s second try, also had a big game and Dean Hadley made an impressive return from long-term injury.
Trinity’s discipline was impressive and they conceded only four penalties, to Rhinos’ nine, the first half count being four to Wakefield and two for Leeds. Two of Rhinos’ four were on the final play of each half and another was a mystery decision when Wakefield were attacking Leeds line in the second period.
Referee Phil Bentham wasn’t popular with the home fans, but tried to let the game flow and did a decent job. There was a doubt over several of the tries, but the game was not televised so Bentham didn’t have a video assistant to provide backup. There was a possible obstruction on the Leeds chase after Bill Tupou had caught McGuire’s cross kick on his own line and sent Mason Caton-Brown sprinting away for the opening score after five minutes.
Six minutes later Grix’s tackle prevented Moon going on what might have been a try-scoring run and jarred the ball loose, allowing Hadley to send Wood over. Finn converted the first and at 10-0 Wakefield were in a strong position, but Stevie Ward – back in the side after a one-game ban – finished well for Leeds’ opening try on 19 minutes, after some juggling by Keith Galloway – who had a strong game – and Brad Singleton.
In the next set Matt Parcell, McGuire and Ashton Golding – who returned at full-back after a two-game injury lay-off – worked the ball to Kallum Watkins and he sent Tom Briscoe over, though the final pass was possibly forward.
The next score didn’t come until the 58th minute when Moon ran the ball on the last. He supplied Brett Ferres and Watkins, who was next in line, sent Briscoe in.
Moon scored from McGuire’s kick at the end of the next set, Liam Sutcliffe landing his only goal. Aided by a flurry of penalties, Wakefield gave themselves hope with eight minutes left when Williams’ pass was finished by Jones-Bishop and Finn landed a touchline conversion, but another breakthrough eluded them.
On balance Leeds were worthy winners. They were strong in the tackle for the most part and created more chances. Carl Ablett knocked on stretching over the line at the end of the first half, moments before Mitch Garbutt forced his way across the whitewash, but was held up by Hadley. In the second half Ferres’ pass which sent McGuire over was forward and Parcell couldn’t get the ball down from Moon’s kick.
Moon was outstanding for Leeds, whose kicking game was very good. He was back in the halves, with Golding’s return allowing Sutcliffe to move to centre. Briscoe finished well for his two tries, which will have been a good confidence boost for the winger who made some strong carries and regularly came in-field looking for work.
McGuire was influential and brave to play on after suffering what looked like a painful knock, needing lengthy treatment, in the build-up to Briscoe’s second touchdown. Ward also battled on after taking a bang to the head. It was a spirited performance by Leeds who maintained their composure after early setbacks.
The win ensured Leeds ended Betfred Super League round 18 where they began in, in third place – but they now have a seven-point gap over St Helens, who are sixth.
The encouraging thing for Rhinos is they can play better. Wakefield are still firmly in the hunt for a top-four finish and, with influential players to come back, will fancy their chances of upsetting Rhinos when the sides meet again in the Super-8s.