A TRY from the unlikely figure of Leeds Rhinos’ Jamie Jones-Buchanan settled a typically absorbing and frenetic encounter with Wigan Warriors.
The England second-row is never the most prolific scorer but his crucial effort just before the hour mark was also all the more appreciated last night given the workaholic forward had endured an unusually error-prone evening.
However, his timely intervention was just enough to see off in-form visitors who, despite the surprise absence of Sam Tomkins with a dead leg picked up in training, remained threatening.
It was the first time Leeds had defeated Wigan at Headingley in five attempts, acting as perfect response to last week’s embarrassing defeat by leaders Huddersfield Giants while, at the same time, denying their opponents top spot in Super League.
But how Brian McDermott’s side had to show all their champion spirit to get there holding off throughout a nervy final quarter and seeing Chris Tuson dramatically get an effort chalked off with just 19 seconds remaining after a knock on from Josh Charnley.
They had shown such authority and efficiency in the first period of the game, running with real purpose, defending with similar strength and generally kicking well to work their way into the fixture without ever gaining too much reward.
Their sole try came, typically, from Ryan Hall although its genesis was all down to the guile of Danny McGuire.
He showed great awareness dummying from acting-half and then sniping down the blindside before unleashing the England winger who showed world-class finishing to step inside and beat Pat Richards in the 10th minute.
Sinfield improved the easy conversion but it was the Leeds captain with one of those rare occurrences you might not see again before he retires – dropping the ball at first receiver with not a defender in sight – that gifted Wigan immediate possession.
His side survived that error, Hall effortlessly taking control of yet another crossfield kick as Wigan ran out of ideas, but they were not as fortunate next time they erred.
A simple drop-off pass by Blake Green, the former Hull KR stand-off who is beginning to find his feet for the Warriors, saw Liam Farrell angle through and then all too easily fend off last man Kallum Watkins to score in the 18th minute.
The embarrassed Leeds full-back, who went high feebly, thought video referee Ian Smith might save his blushes as replays suggested a clear nudge forward from dummy-half Michael McIlorum in the build-up but it was awarded regardless.
Matty Smith, and not the usual prolific Richards, levelled the scores and Wigan had just the scent they needed.
When Rob Burrow passed forward from acting-half soon afterthe visitors were further encouraged and Leeds suddenly lost all their previous command.
A Green 40/20 kick put Wigan in another good position and, after being awarded their first penalty as late as the 29th minute, when Jones-Buchanan was deemed to have gone high on Tuson, Smith nudged them ahead.
Jones-Buchanan then infringed again and Leeds’ composure fell away, the experienced international loosely losing possession soon after to be copied by Kylie Leuluai and, at the end of the half, McGuire, who uncharacteristically forced a forward pass.
They were limited to perhaps two chances which both fell to Hall.
The first saw him fail to pick up Sinfield’s slid grubber – it was difficult but given Hall’s calibre he will feel he should have gathered – before Charnley and Richards combined to marginally hold up the powerful wideman after he did, this time, gather his captain’s clever kick.
However, the hosts got the start they required just five minutes into the second period when they latched onto a loose Smith pass and Sinfield launched a high kick.
Charnley failed to deal with it, allowing Joel Moon to score his fourth try since joining from Salford and Sinfield to kick his 3,500th career point.
He should have been adding another after unleashing Ian Kirke on a storming run down the middle. The towering prop who, in fairness, is pretty alien to such situations, had a look and saw McGuire on his outside only to power on regardless.
By the time he decided to pass when Richards enveloped him, it went to ground.
Moon, though, had no such excuse. Brilliantly put away by Carl Ablett down the left touchline, the normally-assured centre should have sent Burrow scampering home but his inside pass was, crucially, just behind the hooker who dropped again.
As Wigan picked up and Iain Thornley suddenly found space romping clear down the other touchline it seemed like being supremely costly.
However, the isolated Watkins kept his nerve to track back and haul down Farrell just metres short, the second-row losing the ball in the process to let the dangerously-exposed hosts off the hook.
Instead, it was Jones-Buchanan who picked up a wayward Jamie Peacock pass to brush off Green and sprint 20m to the posts at the other end in the 57th minute, Sinfield stretching their lead to 18-8.
It did not ease the tension. In the next set, Peacock was bizarrely penalised for not playing the ball correctly, and Wigan seized the opportunity with a move of real fluidity that ended with ex-Leeds Carnegie winger Thornley finding the corner off Farrell’s sharp cut-out pass. Smith curled in the conversion and there were a few hairy moments still to come.
Fortunately, Leeds’ resilience saw them home and, thankfully, Wigan lacked a certain someone with that killer touch who could have made the difference.
Leeds Rhinos: Watkins; Vickery, Ablett, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Bailey. Substitutes: Ward, Kirke, Achurch,Moore.
Wigan: Richards; Charnley, Goulding, Hughes, Thornley; Green, Smith; Flower, McIlorum, Crosby, Tuson, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Dudson, Taylor, L Tomkins, Burke.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).