LEEDS Rhinos’ hopes of a third successive Super League title were finally erased last night by a committed Wigan Warriors side who seem intent on restoring themselves to the pinnacle of the British game.
Even all Leeds’s famous play-off guile and experience – they hoped to win a sixth title in just seven years – was powerless to prevent Wigan marching on to a Grand Final against Warrington Wolves a week today.
It will only be the third time in the competition’s 16-year history of such showpieces that there is no Yorkshire involvement at Old Trafford, but the reigning champions could have few complaints.
Despite a typically spirited effort, a season which has been so damaged by injuries finally caught up with them as two quickfire tries early in the second period undid Brian McDermott’s side, who were level 6-6 until Liam Farrell’s 52nd-minute effort.
Rob Burrow and Carl Ablett produced some stellar moments for the visitors and both deserve to be included in Steve McNamara’s England World Cup squad when it is announced on Tuesday.
But it was Challenge Cup victors Wigan who gained revenge for last year’s one-point defeat by Leeds at this stage and they will now bid to complete a double which seemed so unlikely just a few weeks ago when they were embroiled in some wretched form.
New Zealand Warriors-bound Sam Tomkins did not get a farewell try against the Rhinos, Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield denying him with a great tackle towards the end, but his Wigan colleagues had already done the damage with ex-Hull KR stand-off Blake Green particularly dangerous.
It should be a fascinating encounter with Warrington as they meet in a major final for the first time since the 1990 Challenge Cup.
There were few first-half chances, but the contest was utterly compelling nonetheless as each side probed and tested to see who would blink first.
Ben Jones-Bishop had Leeds’s best opportunity inside two minutes when Joel Moon collared Tomkins on the last tackle and a trademark Kallum Watkins flicked pass put the Leeds winger in sight.
However, Jones-Bishop lost the ball over the line under pressure from Iain Thornley’s fine tackle.
It was the strapping ex-Leeds Tykes centre who scored the only try of the half just four minutes later.
Slick handling saw the ball move to Wigan’s left where Pat Richards – another heading to the NRL – showed great dexterity to pick up off his bootlaces and then evade a tackle long enough to get Thornley over back inside.
Richards curled in the conversion from wide out, but it did not spark any sort of points spree.
Josh Charnley almost got in after Zak Hardaker had spilled a high kick and Matty Smith chipped to the corner on a ‘free’ play, but the ball just ran dead.
Leeds were limited to one more half-chance for Jones-Bishop after a clever blindside move, but Richards was wise to it and the England Knights international was bundled into touch.
Prolific winger Richards must have thought he would score himself after picking up Hardaker’s loose offload and sprinting away, but he was somehow hauled in by Leeds prop Ian Kirke, a sign of the remarkable fitness of the Rhinos pack or, indeed, the modern-day Super League forward.
Wigan, who finished fourth after Leeds beat them here three weeks go, went in 6-0 up but McDermott’s side levelled just five minutes into the second period following a great try from Moon.
It was all Ablett’s work, however, the always-reliable England second-row showing class too as he twisted out of Harrison Hansen’s attempted tackle, battered off Smith and then surged 50m into Wigan territory.
More was to come as he demonstrated acute awareness to cleverly suck in both covering defenders with the timing of his pass to Moon, who crossed for his 17th try of the season.
Sinfield levelled with his conversion, but when Mitch Achurch’s ill-conceived offload went to ground it allowed Wigan the chance to respond quickly.
Green teased the Leeds defence close to their own line, holding them up just long enough to put a voracious Farrell steaming over. Richards added his second conversion and was successful again soon after when his side capitalised on another unforced Leeds error.
Watkins had no one near him when he spilled on his own 20 and, when a bending Ablett could only get his fingertips to Smith’s stubbed grubber, the ball fell loose perfectly for Darrell Goulding to score.
Although struggling for decent position, Leeds remained threatening and they seemed certain to score on the hour mark after Burrow’s crabbing trickery set Moon in motion but second-row Hansen crucially rallied to force the ball loose, emulating Kirke’s earlier feat.
Burrow then cruised on one of his trademark arcing runs, too, only to be hauled in, and another chance disappeared when Hardaker failed to take in an admittedly poor pass from Sinfield.
The Leeds captain atoned for that when he scrambled back to deny Tomkins after Green had again sent Farrell scurrying away, the visitors then charging down Smith’s effort at a drop-goal.
But there was no stopping the Wigan scrum-half as he dummied through and, though failing to beat Hardaker, he found Goulding who swiftly put Charnley sliding over for the 42nd try of the England winger’s stellar season.
Youngster Liam Sutcliffe, one of the many success stories of this injury-ravaged Leeds campaign, dived over at the end after more style from Ablett, Sinfield converting, but the champions’ chance of an Old Trafford return had already gone.
Wigan Warriors: S Tomkins, Charnley, Goulding, Thornley, Richards, Green, Smith, Dudson, McIlorum, Mossop, Hansen, Farrell, Flower. Substitutes: Hughes, L Tomkins, Crosby, Taylor.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Sinfield, Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Bailey. Substitutes: Clarkson, Achurch, Kirke, Sutcliffe.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).