IF WE are going to get more of this with the Super 8s, then bring it on.
Super League leaders Leeds Rhinos, despite the wondrous efforts of Australian prop Adam Cuthbertson, may have lost for a second time this season to Wigan Warriors last night but they played their part in an epic contest. It was enthralling from start to finish. Especially at the finish.
Rob Burrow thought he had rescued a point for Leeds when he burrowed over in the 77th minute for Kevin Sinfield to level 24-24.
When Carl Ablett then surged clear in the final minute, the West Yorkshire visitors felt they were on course for a dramatic win.
However, referee Richard Silverwood pulled him back as Paul Aiton was deemed to have obstructed a Wigan defender – offering Matty Smith a penalty goal 40m out in front of the posts which he duly took to break Rhinos’ hearts.
It infuriated Leeds players who were desperate to atone for their previous loss to Wigan at Magic Weekend. Nevertheless, for the neutrals, this game will only whet the appetite further for when the competition’s inaugural split – whereby the top eight play each other once in successive weeks – comes in two rounds’ time.
If St Helens, who dropped from second to third after this, defeat in-form Huddersfield Giants tonight, they will narrow the gap to Leeds at the top to just one point, but this tightly-fought season has plenty of twists yet.
Rhinos had emphatically beaten Saints a week ago and so came into this contest full of confidence but Wigan were badly wounded after defeat to Warrington and, therefore, when their coach Shaun Wane named four props on the bench last night you immediately realised the way he intended to meet their West Yorkshire rivals: head on.
In the end, the hosts’ greater strength off the bench was perhaps key allied to some brilliance from Matty Bowen, the former Queensland State of Origin full-back who came closest to rivalling off-loading prop Cuthbertson for centre stage, and Smith’s assured right boot.
Although Josh Charnley was equally as instrumental in deciding Leeds’s fate, scoring a 50th-minute try that gave his side a 24-18 lead.
Leeds saw what would have been a clear try-of-the-season contender – countless offloads and off-the-cuff passes before the brilliant Cuthbertson finally sent Danny McGuire over – ruled out in the 34th minute due to a maddening obstruction ruling.
By the letter of the law it was the correct call. But the law is an ass; Joel Tomkins, the ‘obstructed’ Wigan player, would never have been able to make the tackle even if he had Inspector Gadget-style arms.
Instead, the hosts survived and soon after took an 18-12 lead into the break after Bowen rose above a grounded McGuire to take Smith’s high kick.
McGuire had conceded a soft penalty, too, for Wigan’s second try although his team-mates should have been tougher when allowing Sean O’Loughlin to stride over from close range off another pass from Smith.
Wigan’s defence had been surprisingly meek as well when Aiton, the tough Papuan hooker, benefited from some shoddy marker tackling to give Leeds a 10th-minute lead, Sinfield adding the first of his four goals.Wane’s blood pressure would have surged at the sight of that pathetic attempt but his mood was instantly lifted as his side replied with a classy score, moving the ball wide to the left where Joe Burgess found space and chipped ahead for England colleague Liam Farrell to collect and evade Ablett’s desperate dive.
However, Leeds levelled 12-12 after some quality from Kallum Watkins – playing full-back in the absence of suspended Zak Hardaker – unleashed Jimmy Keinhorst.
Although the Leeds centre was halted by Bowen, later in the set that man Cuthbertson was on hand to produce a stunning cut-out pass for Brad Singelton’s try that would have had the finest stand-offs in the world purring.
The Australian prop has been a revelation since joining from Newcastle Knights and England coach Steve McNamara must be keen on utilising his English bloodline – his father hails from Manchester – in the Four Nations this autumn on this form.
He led the offloads chart in Super League with 87 before this round – his nearest rival Catalans Dragons’ Zeb Taia back on just 47 – and he seemed to double that number alone last night when he was near-on unplayable.
But, instead, his fellow compatriot Bowen came to the fore once more, escaping Sinfield from a scrum and, though Burrow saved him, Smith showed real vision to find Charnley in the corner.
McGuire denied Michael McIlorum with a great tackle before another Cuthbertson offload, allied to Sinfield’s own fine kick, saw Ash Handley score in the 53rd minute to set up a thrilling finale.
Wigan Warriors: Bowen; Charnley, Bateman, Sarginson, Burgess; Williams, Smith; Crosby, McIlorum, Flower, J Tomkins, L Farrell, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Clubb, Mossop, Tautai, Patrick.
Huddersfield Giants: Watkins; Handley, Keinhorst, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Aiton, Peacock, Delaney, Ablett, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Burrow, Singleton, Walters, Yates.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).