LEEDS RHINOS are edging ever closer to a first League Leaders’ Shield in six years.
Seeing off second-placed Wigan Warriors last night was a requisite tick but hearing that third-placed St Helens had surprisingly lost at home to Hull FC, too, brightened the Challenge Cup finalists’ mood even further.
They are now four and five points clear of those respective rivals with five rounds of the Super 8s remaining and it is hard to see Brian McDermott’s men slipping up from here.
Granted, they did not have it all their own way against Shaun Wane’s side who actually scored four tries, the same as the hosts, but saw Matty Smith and Matt Bowen both miscue with conversion attempts.
Leeds required a hugely-contentious Ryan Hall try on the stroke of half-time to somehow be confirmed by the video referee officials – Kevin Sinfield blatantly fumbled before putting in a delicious grubber kick with his weaker left foot for the England winger to finish – for a 20-4 interval advantage.
That said, with Jamie Peacock, Adam Cuthbertson and Stevie Ward relishing battling against Wigan’s irritable pack, and Danny McGuire dictating play behind them, they never seemed in any real danger of suffering defeat either, John Bateman and Dom Manfredi only scoring their Wigan tries too late on.
The only downside for the West Yorkshire club was the loss of the seriously unlucky Mitch Achurch, the Australian second-row stretchered off with a head injury just minutes after coming on following a 10-week lay-off.
It was a typical Leeds-Wigan contest; tough, uncompromising and imbued with all the usual drama and controversy, referee Richard Silverwood having two of his ‘try’ decisions overturned by his colleagues upstairs although, strangely, not the most obvious one from Hall.
While never sparkling with the quality of a true top-of-the-table clash, it had its moments.
McGuire gave the hosts a third-minute lead after Hall tried squeezing out a pass in the corner, a Wigan defender only deflected it down for the Leeds scrum-half who still showed great finishing to get the ball down.
Sinfield converted from the touchline but the Wigan response was instantaneous if fortuitous.
Tom Briscoe, the Leeds wing, will not want to see replays of him failing to make safe George Williams’s dinked grubber as he ran back to his own line, Liam Farrell making the most of the gift.
Smith missed the simple conversion attempt but his side would have more chances as Leeds were not their usual fluent selves early on.
It was perhaps no surprise given they were without the firm control of Paul Aiton, the Catalans-bound Papuan hooker who won’t play again for them having been ruled out for four months with a dislocated wrist.
McDermott named prop Adam Cuthbertson as hooker but predictably it was Sinfield who generally slotted in at dummy-half and, understandably, there was a few early teething problems as Leeds looked to play with McGuire as their sole half.
Others made uncharacteristic errors – Peacock, Kallum Watkins, Briscoe – all spilling to encourage Wigan but it said plenty about the squad’s resolve that they were not broken again before half-time despite all the ball they offered up.
Joel Moon added their second try in the 21st minute darting onto McGuire’s perfectly executed grubber after Peacock’s lovely flat pass had initially seen Watkins pierce the Wigan line. Sinfield improved and added a penalty after Joel Tomkins caught an accelerating Ward high as the Leeds second-row angled back towards the goalline.
In the middle of that pressure, however, Rhinos were fortunate to still have 13 men after Kylie Leuluai tripped Bowen as the Queenslander full-back deceived him with pace and footwork.
Leuluai is 37 and could argue that was the principal reason for failing to deal with the swift change in direction as the prop moved to cover but it was a try-scoring opportunity for Wigan.
Watkins bundled Manfredi into touch, though, and then Peacock and Zak Hardaker teamed up to somehow deny Ryan Sutton as the lumbering forward seemed destined to cross.
Then came Hall’s controversial score on the stroke of half-time and, though Liam Farrell squeezed over just before the hour, Watkins made sure for Leeds in the 65th minute, the England centre finishing off after McGuire made the initial break and Rob Burrow showed great vision from dummy-half.
Sinfield hit a post with the conversion attempt but Hardaker’s drop goal gave them breathing space before Wigan finished with that futile late flurry. Leeds, who head to Hull on Friday, have now won four successive games against these rivals at Headingley and, more importantly, helped atone for back-to-back losses against Wane’s side in their last two meetings this season.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Garbutt, Cuthbertson, Peacock, S Ward, Ablett, Singleton. Substitutes: Keinhorst, Burrow, Leuluai, Achurch.
Wigan Warriors: Bowen; Charnley, Gelling, Bateman, Manfredi; Williams, Smith; Flower, McIlorum, Clubb, J Tomkins, L Farrell, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Powell, Mossop, Patrick, Sutton.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).
Super 8s table
P W D L F A Pts
Leeds 25 18 1 6 832 505 37
Wigan 25 16 1 8 637 460 33
St Helens 25 16 0 9 636 494 32
Huddersfield 25 14 2 9 584 436 30
Castleford 25 15 0 10 600 551 30
Warrington 25 12 0 13 578 522 24
Hull 25 12 0 13 514 542 24
Catalans Dragons 25 10 2 13 599 614 22