Defending Stobart Super League champions Leeds Rhinos kept alive their hopes of another Grand Final appearance after bringing Wakefield’s seven-match winning run to a halt in the elimination play-off.
The Rhinos trailed three times before finally getting on top of their gallant opponents and finishing with a flourish with a Ben Jones-Bishop hat-trick to earn a trip to Catalan Dragons in next Friday’s preliminary semi-final.
Former Leeds Grand Final winners Richard Mathers, Lee Smith and Ali Lauitiiti all scored tries as the Wildcats played their full part in a thoroughly entertaining match and threatened to spring a shock before finally running out of steam.
They led 16-12 early in the second half but Leeds’ class told in the end, with Jones-Bishop scoring three second-half tries.
Leeds were boosted by the return of half-back Danny McGuire after a four-match absence with a knee injury and he was at the heart of the action as the Rhinos dominated the opening stages.
But Wakefield’s defence was spot on and the only early danger came from a break out of his own half by full-back Zak Hardaker.
Tim Smith was clearly Wakefield’s key player and it was his accurate cut-out pass that enabled winger Ben Cockayne to open the scoring for the visitors on 14 minutes.
They scored again nine minutes from half-time when centre Lee Smith released Cockayne and took a return pass to touch down, with Paul Sykes kicking the goal.
The Wildcats spurned other chances, with substitute Frankie Mariano twice spilling passes with the defensive line breached, and Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield crucially knocked down Cockayne’s final pass with the tryline beckoning.
Leeds were clearly rattled at that stage and it was only the class of Watkins that kept them in the game by half-time.
He sliced between Sykes and Cockayne to get Rob Burrow over on 22 minutes and demonstrated brilliant footwork and evasive skills again 28 seconds from the interval to create a second try for the diminutive hooker.
Sinfield’s second goal made it 12-10 but the Wildcats were back in front within two minutes of the re-start when replacement hooker Kyle Wood freed Mariano and he got Mathers over for his side’s third try.
Sykes’ second conversion put the visitors into a 16-12 lead but again the champions struck back, this time with their best rugby of the match.
Wakefield loose forward Danny Washbrook saved a certain try when he got back to halt Leeds left winger Ryan Hall after a 70-metre run but his defenders could not regroup quickly enough to prevent right winger Jones-Bishop collecting Sinfield’s pinpoint kick to grab his first try.
Sinfield’s third goal edged his side back in front and, with their tails up, the champions piled the pressure on visibly tiring opponents.
It was no surprise when the Rhinos scored again, quicksilver Burrow opening up the Wakefield defence with his trademark jink to get McGuire over for a fourth try.
Hardaker then went 80 metres to bring the 9,034 crowd to its feet with a glorious try after picking up a dropped pass by Wakefield prop Andy Raleigh close to his own line.
Sinfield’s fifth goal made it 30-14 but Wakefield battled to the end, scoring again when Lauitiiti touched down Tim Smith’s grubber kick.
However, Leeds were in total control by then and Jones-Bishop touched down twice in three minutes to complete his hat-trick, Watkins providing the final pass each time, and Sinfield took his goal tally to seven from as many attempts.