A CAREER first hat-trick by second-rower Stevie Ward helped Leeds Rhinos put their Challenge Cup disappointment behind them as they began their Betfred Super-8s campaign with a sparkling 32-16 home win over Wigan Warriors last night.
Leeds led 10-0 early in the second quarter, but Wigan – who haven’t won at Headingley since 2012 – quickly levelled and it remained all-square at the break.
Rhinos hit the front again straight after half-time, went 10 points clear with 25 minutes left and sealed the points with a couple of late touchdowns.
Six days after the 43-24 drubbing by Hull which ended Leeds’ Wembley hopes they proved – if they get their game together – they are real contenders for a Grand Final appearance.
Leeds’ win cut the gap on league leaders Castleford Tigers to eight points and they remain strong in second place, three points ahead of Hull.
With Salford and Wakefield both losing, Leeds have moved a step closer to a play-offs place and made it harder for Wigan.
Leeds were marginally the better team in the opening 40 and dominated the second period.
The pack, led by Adam Cuthbertson and Matt Parcell, were outstanding and there were some terrific efforts in the backs, particularly Ryan Hall and Danny McGuire.
Rhinos’ side included nine players who hadn’t figured in the 34-0 loss at Wigan 14 days earlier.
In changes from the semi-final, Liam Sutcliffe returned at centre after missing four games due to a hamstring problem and Brett Delaney came back on the bench after eight matches out because of damage to both knees.
Delaney came on midway through the first half and after a breather had a second spell late in the game. He made a strong comeback and there was also an impressive effort by substitute forward Anthony Mullally
Jimmy Keinhorst switched to the bench to make way for Sutcliffe. He didn’t get on until the 62nd minute and played in the pack.
The other substitute, Jordan Lilley, got the final nine minutes.
Brett Ferres – who returned off the bench in the semi-final, but did not look fully fit – and Mitch Garbutt (calf) dropped out.
Jack Walker, who was not in the initial squad, warmed up as 18th man at the end of a week when he signed a three-year full-time contract.
Walker has made it clear he wants to be Leeds’ first-choice full-back and the competition will be good for current No 1 Ashton Golding.
The 20-year-old scored a brace of tries – his first in the league this year after he broke his duck in the Cup semi-final – in a good all-round performance.
Tom Briscoe beat a couple of tackles on a morale-boosting early run and that clearly settled the winger, who did well and was mistake-free though Wigan did not test him as much as might have been expected.
Leeds looked the more threatening team, but Wigan looked to have opened the scoring after nine minutes.
George Williams accepted Sean O’Loughlin’s pass close to half-way and a left foot step took him past Ward and into space before he sent the supporting Liam Farrell over.
Referee Ben Thaler indicated a try, but handed the decision on and video assistant James Child awarded Rhinos a penalty for an obstruction by Frank-Paul Nuuausala on Parcell.
Leeds did get the scoreboard at the end of the first quarter, following a knock-on by O’Loughlin.
Cuthbertson’s kick on the last tackle was collected by Anthony Gelling who hoofed the ball onto the Western Terrace. It’s about time that sort of thing was made a penalty offence, or at least referees ordered the offending player to go fetch.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan caught the defence napping with a fine run from the scrum, Sam Tomkins was penalised for interference and on the next play Ward shrugged off Farrell to score from McGuire’s pass.
Wigan were penalised in the set from the restart and then conceded a drop out, from which Rhinos scored again.
It was a cracking try. Parcell had a dart from acting-half and flicked the ball back to Watkins, who passed inside to Golding and the full-back twisted over. Kallum Watkins added the extras and at 10-0 Leeds were in a strong position, but the scores were level within 10 minutes.
Wigan hit back almost immediately – in a penalty set – as Tom Davies dived over from Tomkins’ pass.
On 29 minutes Rhinos looked like scoring on their left, but Sutcliffe dropped the ball and Thomas Leuluai picked up and flicked on to Davies who broke Sutcliffe’s attempted tackle and raced almost the length of the field to score a stunning try which Williams improved to make it 10-10.
Rhinos had a touchdown ruled out by Child on the stroke of half-time, after it had been sent up as no try.
Hall got over from Cuthbertson’s offload, but Golding had run behind Jones-Buchanan in the build up. It was the right call and Hall seemed to knock-on anyway over the line.
Hall created the first try after the break. He burst past Gelling from Joel Moon’s pass and then kicked in field for Golding to collect and touch down, though Watkins missed what should have been a simple conversion.
On 55 minutes Leeds went further in front with another fine try. Sutcliffe made a searing break from inside his own half, but was ankle-tapped by Davies and Tomkins completed the tackle.
But Briscoe was at acting half and after a scamper he flicked the ball back for Parcell to scoot over. Watkins’ kicked restored the 10-point advantage.
It stayed that way until 13 minutes from time when Keinhorst made a break, then Moon linked with McGuire and his excellent pass sent Ward through a hole.
Watkins converted that and added the extras after Ward’s hat-trick score moments later, from a kick by the outstanding McGuire.
Wigan scored a late consolation through Tomkins, which Williams improved, but second half score of 22-6 was a fair reflection of Leeds’ dominance after the break.
Wigan’s former Wakefield Trinity forward Taulima Tautai got away with clouting Parcell in the face late in the first half. All three officials missed it and the incident was belatedly placed on report.
Referee Ben Thaler has been in charge of all three meetings between these sides this year. The penalty count finished 7-6 to Rhinos – 6-4 in Leeds’ favour in the first half.