WARRINGTON WOLVES took full advantage of Leeds Rhinos’ fragility to inflict a nine-try mauling on the reigning Super League champions.
Trailing only 18-12 after a tightly-contested first half, the Rhinos collapsed in all-too familiar fashion after the break as the Wolves cruised to a 52-18 victory to return to the top of the table and leave their opponents rooted to the bottom.
Stand-off Kurt Gidley contributed 20 points with a try and eight conversions in Warrington’s highest-ever Super League score against Leeds.
To compound their misery, the under-strength Yorkshire side lost England full-back Zak Hardaker with a shoulder injury just before half-time.
Leeds coach Brian McDermott admitted: “I thought we lost our defensive integrity tonight.
“In the first half we did some things and got ourselves in a position to be competitive.
“But I still thought we were too loose defensively.
“Warrington were very good and they’ve had some adversity themselves.
“They answered a few questions they’d have of themselves and they played some good stuff.
“But the whole game is preventing people from being as good as they want to be and that starts with a loss in collision.”
Asked where Leeds go from here, he added: “We need to keep fighting and keep swinging away.
“Keep coming in and trying to fix things up.”
Reeling from back-to-back defeats by Wakefield and Castleford, Warrington were boosted by the return of Australian playmaker Chris Sandow, who was Super League’s outstanding player up to tearing a hamstring two months into the season, and back-up hooker Brad Dwyer, who made an even bigger impact on his return from a three-month injury lay-off.
Leeds had beaten St Helens to reach the Challenge Cup final on their last appearance at the Halliwell Jones Stadium and it took them just 90 seconds to open the scoring, with centre Jimmy Keinhorst pouncing on Danny McGuire’s grubber kick for his seventh try in his last seven games.
But when second rower Brett Delaney lost the ball on his own 20-metre line, Warrington took full advantage as left winger Gene Ormsby crossed unopposed for an equalising score after taking Ben Currie’s cut-out pass.
Undeterred, Leeds put the home defence under tremendous pressure but without being able to find a chink and Tony Smith’s men struck on the counter-attack, with right winger Tom Lineham touching down Sandow’s accurate crossfield kick.
It got even better for the Wolves when Dwyer dummied his way over from acting half-back within minutes of replacing Daryl Clark and Gidley’s third conversion made it 18-6.
The Rhinos battled back as second rower Brett Ferres scored his first try for the club after McGuire’s grubber kick had rebounded kindly off a defender and Liam Sutcliffe kicked his second goal to trim the deficit to just six points.
The champions had a let-off when Dwyer lost the ball going for the line but they suffered a major blow on the stroke of half-time when Hardaker went off and they conceded two further tries within 10 minutes of the re-start.
Their failure to deal with Sandow’s high kick gifted a score to centre Ryan Atkins while smart handling from Gidley and full-back Stefan Ratchford created a second for Ormsby.
Ratchford squandered two clear-cut chances after twice being being put clear by offloads from Ben Westwood and Ashton Sims but finally found a way to the line on 55 minutes to put the game beyond the visitors.
Both teams were a man down at that point after Sims and Brad Singleton were sin-binned after coming to blows and it was still 12-a-side when Sandow put Gidley through a yawning gap in the Leeds defence for the Wolves’ seventh try.
Former Huddersfeld Giants forward Ferres grabbed a second try for the visitors but Clark twice took advantage of their tiring defence to cross for tries as the Wolves finished in total control.
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford, Ormsby, R. Evans, Atkins, Lineham, Gidley, Sandow, Hill, Clark, Sims, Currie, Westwood, Westerman. Substitutes: Dwyer, G. King, Jullien, Bailey.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Golding, Watkins, Keinhorst, Handley, Sutcliffe, McGuire, Galloway, Burrow, Singleton, Cuthbertson, Ferres, Delaney. Substitutes: Jones-Buchanan, Garbutt, Achurch, Lilley.
Referee: C Campbell (RFL).