Leeds 28 Wigan 12: Hardaker shines as Wigan suffer at Rhinos

Tom Briscoe on his way to his try for Leeds Rhinos against Wigan Warriors.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Tom Briscoe on his way to his try for Leeds Rhinos against Wigan Warriors. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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AS the South Stand roared out a chorus of We want our trophy back it must have been hard for anyone witnessing this Leeds Rhinos display to argue their fans won’t be satisfied come October.

Brian McDermott’s side were not at their convincing best last night against the reigning champions but that is all the more reason to believe, having gone top again, they are in a good place to reclaim the title; there is still much more to come.

They inflicted Wigan’s first defeat in nine games, their dominance was far greater than the final scoreline suggests and, in Zak Hardaker and Ryan Hall, they have two England players reaching new heights of performance.

Leeds effortlessly began life without Rob Burrow, the influential hooker who broke his collarbone in the Challenge Cup defeat of St Helens a week ago.

The only thing more surprising than seeing Carl Ablett listed at scrum-half last night was watching as another second-row – Chris Clarkson – start the game at nine.

More renowned for his industry than guile, you always knew he would deal with the defensive side of the role fine but many wondered about his ability to distribute.

Fear not, though. As a former bricklayer, his handling was always going to be sound and so it was that he guided Leeds around the park quite efficiently in the opening half-hour before Kevin Sinfield took over.

Wigan started poorly, ex-Bradford Bulls second-row John Bateman spilling in the opening tackle of the game to gift Leeds the chance to score inside just 90 seconds.

Sinfield’s crossfield kick was tapped down by Hall and Danny McGuire mopped up for the captain to convert.

The hosts, who made more inroads after another stirring run from the always impressive Ablett, went further ahead in the 13th minute.

There aren’t many better full-backs in the game at the moment than Hardaker, who showed his class yet again with a quality try direct from a scrum 20m out.

Sinfield and Joel Moon linked first but it was the 22-year-old who brought all the class, throwing a dummy, slicing through and then flattening Dan Sarginson with a powerful fend before finishing one-handed in the corner.

It was too wide for Sinfield to improve before Wigan – with acting-captain Michael McIlorum setting the tempo in Sean O’Loughlin’s absence – finally arrived in the fixture.

The bustling England hooker burrowed close and, though he was just short, Tony Clubb did muscle his way over at the next play-the-ball.

It was scrappy and Leeds – given their new-found mean streak conceding an average of just eight points per game – will be furious for conceding in such a manner after 22 minutes.

Matty Smith tagged on the extras and Leeds had to redouble their effort to prevent further haemorrhaging. Hardaker finally brought a marauding Anthony Gelling down, Ablett, typically, held up England colleague Liam Farrell while a Matty Bowen chip so nearly eluded Hall with a vicious bounce.

Hall then had to race back to haul down Gelling once more after Hardaker made a rare handling error to offer Wigan a further chance before Ablett – again – held up Blake Green.

Wigan stand-off Green was then lucky not to get yellow-carded for checking Tom Briscoe as he tried to take the 20m restart.

There was no stopping the Leeds winger in the 36th minute, however, after Hall made another brilliant intervention with a 50m weaving kick return, carried on by Moon to set up the attacking position.

Swift hands, including an excellent final pass from Kallum Watkins, ushered Briscoe in for his ninth try of the season, Sinfield curling over the kick from wide out for a 16-6 interval lead.

Something you can always rely on from this Leeds team is at least one piece of magic from Watkins per match. The best from him last night was the way in which the England centre set up Hall’s match-clinching try.

Watkins found himself in the unusual position of having to kick downfield but, having hoisted the ball high and long, somehow got their first to reclaim it and then wrestle his way out of Sarginson’s tackle to find Jamie Peacock.

He, in turn, flicked out a ball to McGuire and Ablett found Moon whose vision enabled a grubber to sit up perfectly behind the flat-footed defence for Hall to cross for his 11th try in eight games.

Sinfield did the rest and Leeds controlled thereonin, only conceding when Scott Taylor burrowed over near the death after Smith’s 40/20. Even then they responded via Liam Sutcliffe’s try. Afterall, they do not like letting tries in.

Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Clarkson, Peacock, Ablett, Delaney, Achurch. Substitutes: Sutcliffe, Singleton, Kirke, Bailey.

Wigan Warriors: Bowen; Burgess, Goulding, Sarginson, Gelling; Green, Smith; Taylor, McIlorum, Dudson, Bateman, Farrell, Clubb. Substitutes: Hughes, Crosby, James, Williams.

Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).