ALMOST predictably, it was Kevin Sinfield who returned for Leeds Rhinos last night to deliver the champions a fortuitous win that so very nearly slipped away.
The England captain was back for his 499th career game having missed the last five weeks following thumb surgery.
Understandably, he eased his way into the action with the ball in hand but his peerless kicking was as crucial and composed as ever.
For all Rob Burrow scampered over in the final seconds, it was his captain’s 64th-minute drop goal that ultimately proved the difference to deny crestfallen Wakefield a win that would have seen them break into the top-eight.
Gutted Trinity had taken the lead three times against their West Yorkshire rivals, lastly when Frankie Mariano surged over in the 70th minute, yet Leeds, for all their scrappiness, just kept hitting back.
After Carl Ablett scrambled over from Sinfield’s dinked grubber four minutes later, the Leeds star converted to regain the advantage and maintained his 100 per cent record with the boot after Burrow’s score at the death of a thrilling encounter.
Defeat was hard on the hosts who, in front of a season-best crowd of 10,031, shrugged off the loss of captain Danny Kirmond after the warm-up following a re-action to a painkilling injection in his knee to truly test the champions for a second week running.
Veteran Ali Lauitiiti, the former Leeds second-row, was promoted from the bench to replace Kirmond and had one of those nights where opponents were continually hanging off his massive frame while hooker Paul Aiton was similarly pivotal slipping over for two tries.
Wakefield will look back on a costly period at the start of the second period, though, when Leeds coughed up possession three times in succession near their own line yet managed to hold Trinity out.
That allowed Sinfield to exert his influence and they finally ground out a win, just as they did at Headingley last week, that sees them strengthen their hold on fourth spot.
Unusually, he started at hooker, Brian McDermott deciding against returning Burrow to nine, instead keeping his half-back pairing going with tyro Liam Sutcliffe.
In fairness, though rarely used in that slot for Leeds, he isn’t unaccustomed to the role.
Ironically enough, he had been thriving in that position during the England v Exiles game when he suffered that injury.
With the World Cup fast approaching, it will be interesting to see if the 32-year-old continues at hooker during the remainder of the season, especially as England’s first-choice rake James Roby is sidelined for the foreseeable .
However, it was when Sinfield switched back to his customary half-back position in the second half that he had the most effect on the game.
Leeds gave 19-year-old James Duckworth his debut on the wing, the fifth teenager to make their bow at the Headingley club this term.
It meant another positional switch, however, full-back Zak Hardaker switching to centre for the injured Kallum Watkins and winger Ben Jones-Bishop moving to the custodian role.
Wakefield did struggle without Paul Sykes’s creativity at stand-off but, regardless, Aiton had surged over for his first try in the 11th minute after latching onto Justin Poore’s offload and accelerating through the Leeds middle.
Lee Smith converted but then missed a simple penalty attempt to extend the advantage.
Leeds got over the Wakefield goalline four times in the first half but, frustratingly, only scored once.
Joel Moon was pulled back after Ryan Hall’s dexterous off-load was ruled forward, Ablett was denied when referee Ben Thaler ruled Burrow had run behind his own player before slipping his England colleague through and then Richie Mathers held up Kylie Leuluai, the Samoan prop also making his return from injury.
When Sutcliffe’s pinpoint grubber forced a third Trinity drop-out, however, they finally breached what had been some terrific defensive effort.
There was some fortune to it as the stand-off’s loose pass bobbled inadvertently to Duckworth who mopped up and finished easily in the 32nd minute.
Sinfield duly converted from wide out to level but another Lauitiiti burst early in the second period saw Lee Smith and Tim Smith combine for Aiton’s second.
Wakefield should have pressed on then but instead their pressure never told and Jones-Bishop raced 95m after picking up Tim Smith’s ineffective ricocheted kick in the 58th minute.
Sinfield levelled again and then added that drop goal, a scruffy effort by his standards, but when Lee Smith kicked the restart dead, he converted once more after Moon crossed wide out courtesy of Richard Moore’s smart offload.
Lee Smith managed to get his next kick-off bouncing into touch to regain quick possession and, after Lauitiiti thundered close once more, Aiton picked out New South Wales prop Poore who charged over from close range for his first-ever Super League try.
Then came Mariano’s classy score off Mathers’s fine cut-out pass for Lee Smith to make it 24-19 but Poore erred in the next set and Ablett profited after Sinfield’s kick flicked off Lee Smith.
Mathers then made a mess of Sinfield’s downfield kick to gift Burrow the chance but McDermott admitted: “Had Wakefield won I wouldn’t have too much grievance. They had a huge dig.
“There was a few cobwebs blown out for Kevin but a few choice kicks and a drop goal that influenced the outcome.”
Agar admitted: “We didn’t learn the lessons of last week; we came up with mistakes at crucial times.
“We weren’t smart enough while Burrow and Sinfield were. That was the difference.”
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: Mathers; Fox, Collis, L Smith, Cockayne; Washbrook, T Smith; Poore, Aiton, Amor, Mariano, Lauitiiti, Trout. Substitutes: Lyne, Wilkes, Tautai, Raleigh.
Leeds Rhinos: Jones-Bishop; Duckworth, Hardaker, Moon, Hall; Sutcliffe, Burrow; Singleton, Sinfield, Peacock, Clarkson, Ablett, Delaney. Substitutes: Leuluai, Kirke, Moore, Foster.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).