LEEDS Rhinos’ 100 per cent start to the season was ruthlessly ended last night – as their England full-back Zak Hardaker was sidelined sweating over his future at the club.
Warrington Wolves ran in three tries as their domination over their West Yorkshire rivals at Halliwell Jones Stadium continued, Leeds having still not won there since 2011.
Admittedly, Brian McDermott’s side did not give up this term’s winning run easily, staying alive in the second half with a brilliant try from Tom Briscoe when they could so easily have wilted having gone 18-0 behind.
However, all the talk was surrounding the absence of Hardaker. Rhinos withdrew him from last night’s side given he is set to be questioned by police, along with teenage team-mate Elliot Minchella, regarding an incident where a man was allegedly assaulted in student flats in Leeds last month.
It meant it was the first time McDermott had changed his starting line-up this season and allowed Ashton Golding – the 18-year-old still at school – to make only his second Super League appearance after debuting off the bench at London Broncos last August.
Man-of-the-match when England Academy beat Australian Schoolboys during the winter, he acquitted himself well and handled the pressure that was always going to come his way.
But Leeds, who lost Australian centre Joel Moon to concussion in the first period, trailed 12-0 at half-time with most of the damage done.
They had been behind by the same scoreline after the first half at Hull FC the previous week yet came back to emphatically win 43-12 and record their fourth successive victory.
However, Warrington are no Hull and have not been for a long time or at least since coach Tony Smith, the astute Australian who led Leeds to their first Super League title in 2004, took over seven years ago to begin their redevelopment.
They continued to methodically pressure the visitors, Ben Westwood playing a real captain’s lead up front, and were never truly in danger of letting it slip although they were thankful Rhinos forward Brad Singleton had a try disallowed on the hour mark after Briscoe’s wonder score.
Leeds, who saw McDermott unusually bring off Sinfield, were left to rue a couple of missed chances in the first period both of which fell to Ryan Hall in quick succession.
Unusually, the England winger took neither. In fairness, Kevin Penny and Stefan Ratchford did brilliantly to scramble in defence in the first instance but Hall coughed up Carl Ablett’s pass with the line begging for the second.
Warrington, who had seen Man of Steel Daryl Clark held up over the Leeds line early on, were smarter and more direct in their play.
They took the lead via Kevin Penny in the 16th minute after the winger, enjoying a long-awaited renaissance after disappearing from the top flight for the last few years, picked up Ratchford’s loose pass and sashayed in field before dissecting Adam Cuthbertson and Stevie Ward in Leeds’s midfield.
The video officials were asked to check for obstruction but, rightly, common sense prevailed – only the visitors’ fallibility was to blame – and Ratchford converted.
Ben Currie charged down a Sinfield kick as Warrington continued to apply pressure and, though Hall then had his chances, it was no surprise when the hosts extended their lead in the 27th minute.
There was perhaps more uncertainty about whether Ratchford did get the requisite touch to Gareth O’Brien’s grubber but, again, it was confirmed and he converted his own score.
O’Brien was central when Warrington scored the clincher in the 56th minute, picking up the loose ball and finding Ryan Atkins after Sinfield spilled trying to force a pass on his own 20m.
Ratchford improved but Leeds soon struck from deep with a quality try as Sinfield found Hall advancing on his inside, he, in turn fed Watkins and Briscoe arrived for his fourth try of the season, Sinfield converting.
Singleton’s effort was chalked off just two minutes later for a knock-on before, with Warrington perturbed, Ratchford missed a penalty to seal it, Bridge wide with a drop goal attempt.
Leeds, who had Brett Delaney making a return from injury, will look to respond against Wigan Warriors at home on Friday but it remains to be seen whether Hardaker will be involved.
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford; Penny, Currie, Atkins, Russell; Bridge, O’Brien; Hill, Clark, Sims, Philbin, Laithwaite, Westwood. Substitutes: Higham, Asotasi, B Evans, King.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Cuthbertson, Aiton, Peacock, Ward, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Burrow, Leuluai, Delaney, Singleton.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).