Reigning champions Wigan brought down the curtain on an enthralling opening day of the Magic Weekend with an epic 18-14 victory over Super League leaders Leeds Rhinos.
The Rhinos trailed 18-4 early in the second half but thought they had completed a remarkable fightback when Joel Moon went over four minutes from the end only to have his try disallowed by the video referee.
It was a pulsating finish to the top-of-the-bill showdown that lived up to all expectations and kept the single-day Magic Weekend record crowd of 36,339 so engrossed in the non-stop action that it took them until the second half of the final game to come up with the traditional Mexican Wave.
The Rhinos’ second defeat of the season will now give St Helens the chance to go top of the table when they meet Warrington in the final match of the two-day spectacular on Sunday while some of the gloss was removed from Wigan’s famous win by the loss of stand-off Blake Green with a ruptured bicep.
The Warriors were shorn of seven regulars through injury, with England hooker Michael McIlorum, their acting captain, making his 150th Super League appearance at loose forward. It was a momentous occasion for the Leeds-born player, who was one of three players sin-binned but came back to score the winning try.
Wigan spent most of the first half on defence but they tackled heroically to build a 12-4 interval advantage.
Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker had an early try disallowed for a forward pass and Wigan needed a couple of breaks by talented teenage winger Joe Burgess to initially relieve the pressure and then set up the position for the opening try.
The score came in fortuitous fashion, with centre Anthony Gelling palming the ball forward from Matty Smith’s high kick and regathering to touch down.
Smith kicked the conversion and added a penalty on 19 minutes to make it 8-0 before tempers which had been simmering for the opening quarter finally erupted.
Referee Ben Thaler warned both captains after a flare-up was sparked by a late challenge by Wigan prop Gil Dudson on Danny McGuire but it clearly fell on deaf ears as McIlorum’s high shot on Jamie Peacock on the very next play sparked a free-for-all involving all 26 players.
Three of them were removed as Thaler brandished yellow cards to Leeds prop Ryan Bailey, McIlorum and his Wigan team-mate John Bateman and that may not be the end of the matter, with the incident put on report.
Wigan replacement Dom Crosby was also placed on report for an ugly tackle on winger Ryan Hall as tempers continued to hover near boiling point.
The Rhinos took advantage of the extra man to register their only try of the first half, Hall crossing at the corner from Carl Ablett’s pass that rolled along the ground.
Sinfield was unable to convert and watched his side fall further behind three minutes before the break when stand-off Blake Green, with his side back to their full complement, dummied his way past the Rhinos captain to score at the corner.
It was a similar story in the second half as Leeds pressed without making much impression on their opponents’ watertight defence and a midfield break by Crosby took them into a position to score their all-important third try on 54 minutes.
Wigan opted to run the ball on the last tackle and McIlorum burst onto Green’s short pass to touch down.
Smith’s third goal opened up a 14-point lead but that was the signal for the Yorkshiremen to go up a gear.
Ablett jinked his way over on 58 minutes after Hardaker’s weaving crossfield run pulled the Warriors defence out of position and five minutes later centre Joel Moon slipped out an overhead pass for Hall to grab his second try.
Sinfield kicked one of the conversions as Leeds cut the deficit to just four points and Wigan, by now without the influential Green, were forced to hang on desperately.
A last-ditch tackle by George Williams brought down McGuire in full flight and Moon claimed a try after gathering Sinfield’s high kick only to be denied by video referee Phil Bentham, who ruled a knock-on.