FOR THE third successive year, Leeds Rhinos lacked the Magic formula, as Wigan Warriors outplayed them on the big stage.
The final game of the Magic Weekend’s opening day at St James’ Park, Newcastle, was – as anticipated – a good spectacle, featuring some scintillating tries and outstanding defence, but mostly from Wigan.
Zak Hardaker might never again play as well and finish on the losing side, but as a unit Rhinos were uninspired. They had slightly the better of the opening period, but went in 14-12 behind after Wigan scored three tries to two.
The Warriors dropped a lot of ball and trailed 12-4 going into the final 10 minutes of the half, then two brilliantly-taken tries edged them ahead and set them on course for a deserved win.
There was no argument about which was the better team after the break as Wigan prevented Leeds from adding to their tally. A long-range try on 58 minutes extended Wigan’s lead – and finally woke-up their fans – and Leeds never looked like getting back into the game after that. Five tries to two told its own story.
The 27-12 victory was an outstanding reply from Wigan, who had been thrashed 58-16 at Catalans in their previous game. They looked more up for the battle, were stronger in defence and hit Leeds with some wonderful individual tries, while Rhinos lacked ideas when they got close to the opposition’s line.
Leeds were caught out on defence on a couple of occasions, looked disorganised with the ball and perhaps made Wigan look better than they were.
They had some outstanding individuals, particularly two-try full-back Matty Bowen, winger Joe Burgess and talented young stand-off George Williams, but Rhinos didn’t ask them enough questions. Leeds couldn’t blame injuries. Jamie Jones-Buchanan returned, among the substitutes, after a three-game lay-off due to a hamstring injury. It was the 350th appearance of his career.
Brett Delaney was also back, from one game out with a leg injury, so Liam Sutcliffe and Josh Walters dropped out from the win over Hull KR in Rhinos’ previous fixture.
Delaney started, Mitch Achurch dropped to the bench and only Kylie Leuluai and Tom Briscoe remained on the casualty list.
Nor could they have any issues with referee Phil Bentham, who had a strong match. He awarded Wigan a penalty in each of their first three sets, but the count finished only 5-4 in their favour.
Wigan used those early penalties to take the lead after seven minutes when Dan Sarginson forced his way over following a smart run from Williams. Bentham felt the centre had been held up, by Hardaker and Kallum Watkins, but video referee Richard Silverwood saw enough to overturn the decision.
Leeds’ response was impressive. Back-to-back penalties awarded created the field position and Adam Cuthbertson – who started the game in outstanding fashion – ran on to Kevin Sinfield’s pass at pace, twisting over for a well-taken try.
Moments later, Matty Smith made a break and lobbed a pass towards Wigan’s right-wing and Ryan Hall knocked the ball down to concede a goal line drop out, but prevent a try. Sean O’Loughlin knocked on, then Hardaker raced 70 metres, Jones-Buchanan went close, Watkins was held up and on the last Danny McGuire kicked to the corner.
Josh Charnley batted the ball back in-goal and Joel Moon touched down, the score being confirmed by Silverwood before Sinfield added his second conversion. That was on 22 minutes and proved to be the final time Leeds troubled the scoreboard operator.
Leeds were on top for a while after that and it took a terrific tackle from Charnley to halt McGuire and an equally impressive effort by Sarginson to deny Watkins, both times as Rhinos ran it on the last.
That second intervention proved a turning point in the half. On the next set, nine minutes before the interval, Williams burst clear, getting on the outside of Cuthbertson. Hardaker looked to have tackled him into touch by the flag, Bentham said try and Silverwood saw no reason to disagree.
Seven minutes later Hardaker’s kick was taken on the full by Bowen, he released Burgess and the winger cut infield and past a stranded Leeds full-back for a stunning touchdown. Smith had failed to convert the first two, but had no trouble from in front of the posts to open a two-point gap and from looking like taking a healthy advantage into the break, Leeds found themselves behind.
Unlike the start of the game, this time they couldn’t come up with answers. They were fortunate not to go further behind just after the interval when Burgess got to Smith’s kick ahead of Ash Handley and passed to Sarginson, who had a clear run to the line, but the ball came loose. Then Williams cut through the middle on 53, but Hall stood his ground to make a fine one-on-one tackle.
Leeds’ lacked ideas on how to break down Wigan’s defence and looked better when they played off-the-cuff. That approach almost paid off when Jamie Peacock, Hardaker, Ablett and Watkins worked the ball to Handley, but he lost it just short of the line.
Handley has done well on an extended run in the team, during Briscoe’s injury lay-off, but he’s only 19, still inexperienced and has reached the stage where it looks like he would benefit from a break and chance to step back for a while. Moments after his missed chance he lost the ball again in Burgess’ tackle and Bowen picked up to race almost the length of the field for the game-breaking try, which Smith improved.
An amazing run by Hardaker almost pulled a try back, but the full-back rolled an ankle as he was tackled just short. He tried to play on, but limped off soon afterwards. Realistically, the game was already going away from them at that stage, but it was a blow.
Hardaker was Leeds’ best player, producing an outstanding all-round display and he was one who could leave the field feeling he had given his all. Rhinos also lost Stevie Ward to a head injury, something which is happening with worrying regularity and Delaney also seemed to get a knock.
Wigan sealed the game six minutes from time when Rob Burrow was caught in possession near his own line, Wigan forced a drop-out and Bowen pounced after the No 7 couldn’t deal with Sean O’Loughlin’s kick. Smith converted and booted a late drop goal to complete the scoring. Leeds weren’t exactly bad, but they were well below-par and the suspicion is the better sides have worked them out. They’ll need to improve to stay top.