FIVE MONTHS and nine competitive games after they completed the treble, a shambolic 20-16 home loss to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats has left Leeds Rhinos in crisis.
Wildcats deservedly took the points thanks to Craig Hall’s dramatic try two minutes from time, after Leeds had twice blown a chance to win the match.
First, Liam Sutcliffe missed with a penalty attempt, which would have made it 18-16, four minutes from time.
Then Leeds seemed to have set for a drop goal, but Beau Falloon instead went down the blindside to Ash Handley. He was well marked and could not take the pass, the ball came loose and Hall picked up to race the full length of the field, sealing a win Wildcats fans will talk about for years.
Wakefield led three times and showed incredible resilience, particularly when reduced to 12 men for a spell late on, with Scott Moore in the sin-bin.
They scrambled magnificently and made a series of try-saving tackles, though – it has to be said – Rhinos are not a tough team to defend against at the moment.
Winger Tom Johnstone had a sensational game and halves Jacob Miller and Liam Finn weren’t far behind, with Danny Kirmond and Matty Ashurst also impressing in a tremendous team effort.
Wakefield – who finished 27 points behind Leeds at the end of last year’s weekly rounds – looked like a confident team who are enjoying themselves. Rhinos did not.
Yet again they lacked a cutting edge, there was no obvious leadership and far too many errors. Confidence is down and good players are not playing well.
It was Rhinos’ sixth defeat in eight First Utility Super League games. In four of those losses they have matched the opposition for tries. One of the wins, against Huddersfield, also came after touchdowns were shared.
In hindsight Leeds made a mistake going for goal with their late penalty, but that illustrated their lack of confidence with ball in hand.
They defended reasonably well and the likes of Zak Hardaker, Joel Moon, Adam Cuthbertson and Jamie Jones-Buchanan all put in a big shift, but it just is not happening at the moment.
Wakefield opened the scoring after 16 minutes, Miller – under no real pressure – timing his pass expertly to send Ashurst through a big gap and Finn converting.
Midway through the first half Leeds forced their first spell of pressure, but Josh Walters found himself at acting-half on the last and Mitch Garbutt and Cuthbertson were next in line.
The latter’s kick led to a penalty and he won another after being pulled down just short. Falloon also went close and then Sutcliffe’s kick forced a goal line drop out.
The siege was lifted when Falloon knocked on. Wildcats’ defence stood up well, but at no stage did they appear to be hanging on and that passage of play illustrated the problems Rhinos have at the moment.
When Leeds eventually broke through, on 31 minutes, it came via a stroke of luck. Hardaker’s last-tackle kick took a deflection to Sutcliffe. He dived on the ball, it came free backwards and Moon picked up to surge over. Sutcliffe’s conversion levelled the scores.
Wakefield regained the lead before the interval. They were close to scoring a second try when Ashurst ran on to another nicely-timed pass by Miller, but he couldn’t get an arm free with Hall in support.
But Rhinos were penalised twice close to their own line, both for off-side and Finn took the two from the second of them.
Hardaker was held up over the Wildcats line at the start of the second half, but Wakefield increased their lead on 47. Ben Jones-Bishop, one of their former Leeds players, seemed to knock-on in front of his own posts, but it wasn’t given.
Miller’s long ball found Joe Arundel, he sent the pacy Johnstone clear on the left wing and the No 6 was in support to cross for a touchdown which Finn converted. Two scores behind, and the champions were in deep trouble.
They came up with a rapid response, however, when the defence allowed Hardaker’s kick to bounce and Kallum Watkins gathered, wasn’t tackled and off-loaded off the ground to put Tom Briscoe in. There was no goal. Watkins began to come in-field looking for the ball, but he has been criminally under-used this season.
Wakefield showed tremendous desire and scrambled in magnificent fashion.
Some of Rhinos’ last-tackle plays were shocking, but they occasionally do look threatening when they improvise on the final tackle.
On the hour mark they kept the ball alive in breathtaking fashion, but Johnstone did brilliantly to keep Briscoe out after Mitch Achurch and Watkins had created an overlap.
Johnstone, a Stanningley product who is developing into a terrific prospect, made an even better tackle moments later to halt Hardaker just short after he had supported Rob Burrow’s break.
Moore, though, was sin-binned for a professional foul and that should have been a turning point. Reece Lyne and Jason Walton managed to hold Jones-Buchanan up over the line, but Wakefield’s defence finally cracked with 12 minutes left when Achurch went over and Sutcliffe’s kick edged Leeds ahead.
A Finn goal – from Wildcats’ only penalty of the second half – levelled the scores, which was the least the visitors deserved.
The penalty count was 6-4 in Rhinos’ favour at the break and finished 12-5.
Rhinos were without Brett Ferres due to a calf strain, Keith Galloway was left out and Carl Ablett rested.
Jordan Lilley – an unused substitute in Rhinos’ defeat at Castleford in their Easter opener – stepped up to start at scrum-half and Burrow moved to the bench.
Brad Singleton returned at prop after two games out of the side and Achurch and Garbutt were recalled among the substitutes. Walters made his first start of the season, in the second-row.
Youngster Max Jowitt was left out of Wildcats’ line-up, so Hall returned at full-back, Jones-Bishop was back on the wing and Lyne moved to centre in place of concussion victim Ashley Gibson.
Mickael Simon got a start at prop in place of the injured Anthony England and Jon Molloy began the game at loose-forward, swapping with Mickey Sio, who was among the substitutes.
Tinirau Arona and Walton returned on the bench, after suspension and Andy Yates got a call-up, with Chris Annakin and Stuart Howarth – who was concussed against Huddersfield on Good Friday – missing out.