GROUNDHOG DAY at Etihad Stadium left Leeds Rhinos flattened again.
A year ago at the Magic Weekend they shared six tries with Wigan, but lost by four points after having a late touchdown ruled out by the video referee.
And so it was again. Three tries each, Kevin Sinfield missed a couple of touchlines shots at goal and Leeds thought they had grabbed it at the death, only for Phil Bentham to decide not – condemning them to an 18-14 defeat.
Wigan were the better team and deserved to win.
They set a trap and Rhinos fell into it, catching Leeds out with their fast tempo and then rattling them with some borderline tactics.
Leeds only got going in the final quarter, after falling 18-4 behind. They rattled up 10 points and Joel Moon went close to levelling the scores with four minutes left.
Sinfield put up a bomb, Moon caught it and touched down and Bentham – after spending an age – decided he knocked the ball forward into defender Dominic Manfredi before regathering. It was marginal, but the correct decision.
It was a bruising encounter and some of Wigan’s tactics sailed close to the wind.
They had two players –Michael McIlorum and John Bateman – sin-binned following a punch-up, which also led to a yellow card for Ryan Bailey.
That incident was placed on report as was Dom Crosby, who could consider himself fortunate to avoid further punishment for a dangerous tackle on Ryan Hall.
Wigan’s 18 points was the highest score against Leeds this year and three tries equalled the most they have conceded – though both their defeats have been by the same margin.
Leeds had enough possession and territory to win the game. Referee Ben Thaler’s penalty count was seven-four in their favour and they forced all three of the game’s goalline drop outs.
But Wigan scored tries from two of their penalties and that was a key difference.
When Leeds settled down and started to play rugby they caused Wigan problems, but they got going 10 minutes too late. Before that Warriors’ magnificent defence coped well against a limited attack.
It was a very good win for depleted Wigan, who were without eight frontline players – six of them internationals.
But Rhinos had five Test players missing, with Kallum Watkins – who was ill – joining Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Paul Aiton and Rob Burrow on the casualty list, while Tom Briscoe wasn’t selected.
Sutcliffe – usually a stand-off or back-rower – stepped up off the bench to start in the centres.
Sutcliffe is a talented player and he showed some nice touches, but it was a big ask to fill in for a game like this.
With Briscoe not selected Ben Jones-Bishop, who is joining Salford Red Devils next season, kept his place on the wing despite Hall’s return. Ian Kirke was back from a knee injury among the substitutes.
Once again Leeds’ teamsheet was misleading.
This time Carl Ablett was listed at hooker and Chris Clarkson in the second-row, but as expected the roles were actually reversed.
Wigan hit the front after 15, through Anthony Gelling. He punched Matty Smith’s kick forward, but regathered before it hit the deck and then dived over past Zak Hardaker, who was probably Leeds best player over the 80 minutes.
Smith converted, but initial credit went to young winger Joe Burgess for his break, which was halted by Jones-Bishop.
Burgess had already stretched his legs but been tackled by Hardaker and then Gil Dudson burst up the middle, but the defence got back to cover.
Leeds had a spell of pressure just before Gelling’s try, with Scott Taylor producing a brilliant tackle to a rampaging Kylie Leuluai just short, after Hardaker crossed, but a knock-on by Moon meant the touchdown was wiped off.
Ablett’s second effort on Smith resulted in a penalty which the Wigan man kicked to make it 8-0 and then it got heated.
Rhinos received four successive penalties and eventually made the pressure count, though they had an extra man by that stage.
Dudson was penalised for a very late – though not high – challenge on Danny McGuire, a cheap shot which sparked some pushing and shoving.
Peacock took the first carry from the penalty and was hit high by McIlorum, leading to a proper fight.
When the dust settled McIlorum was yellow carded, along with team-mate Bateman and Bailey.
Leeds got on the board when Ablett – who had a strong game – passed along the ground and Hall only had to pick up and step over the line.
There was more aggro soon after when McGuire set up a break for Hall, who was up-ended by Crosby.
Thaler took the easy option of placing it on report and Gelling forced Sinfield into an error after Leeds tapped the penalty.
The difference in the sides was illustrated when Wigan got only their second penalty and in that set Blake Green cut through for an outstanding solo try to make it 12-4 at the break.
Wigan opted to tap a kickable penalty early in the second half and again – unlike Leeds – they collected six points instead of two. On the final tackle Green’s short pass picked out McIlorum and he crashed over between the posts. Smith’s goal made it 18-4.
Leeds got back in it on the hour with a clever try, Hardaker running across the defence, dummying to kick several times and then supplying Ablett, who stepped past three defenders for Sinfield to convert.
It took a great tackle by Bateman to deny Hall a try from distance a few moments later, but on 65 Moon somehow got the ball free and Hall dived over at the corner for a spectacular one-handed touchdown.
Sinfield curled his kick wide to leave the gap at four points.
George Williams, who signed a long-term contract last week, is rated as one of the country’s finest prospects and his sensational tackle on McGuire with seven minutes left went a long way to winning the game for Wigan, though they had a nervous wait as Bentham took an age to rule out Moon’s later effort.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Jones-Bishop, Sutcliffe, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Sinfield, Leuluai, Ablett, Peacock, Achurch, Clarkson, Delaney. Subs (all used) Ward, Bailey, Kirke, Singleton.
Wigan Warriors: Bowen, Burgess, Sarginson, Gelling, Manfredi, Green, Smith, Taylor, Williams, Dudson, Bateman, Hughes, McIlorum. Subs (all used) Goulding, Crosby, Powell, Sutton.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).
Attendance: 36,339 (day one total).