Rhinos, the Challenge Cup winners and league leaders, hit back from 16-6 down against Wigan Warriors to level the scores deep into stoppage time of the Women’s Super League Grand Final, but there was still time for them to concede back-to-back penalties, the second of those for offside in front of their posts.
Wigan’s four tries had all been unconverted, but Charlotte Foley kept her nerve to land the winning goal, sealing an 18-16 success. It was a tough way for Leeds to lose the biggest game in their short history, but Wigan had been the better side for most of an error-ridden, but thrilling, contest.
“That was the only penalty for offside throughout the whole game,” reflected Rhinos coach Adam, Cuthbertson afterwards.
“For that to decide the game, it’s disappointing, but in saying that I think Wigan were just better than us.
“We didn’t execute as well as we’d like to, it could have been nerves or the conditions, but we will be better for it.”
Leeds started well with a try by Rhiannion Marshall, which Courtney Hill converted.
But Wigan coped better with the gale force wind. Their restart bounced dead in goal and from the drop out captain Gemma Walsh’s pass sent Rachel Thompson over for the first of what was to be an outstanding hat-trick.
Though Leeds struggled to complete their sets, they seemed to have done enough to take a two point lead into the break, only for Wigan to go in front with an identical try, Thompson crossing from Walsh’s pass following a drop-out.
Georgia Wilson scored Wigan’s third try at the start of the second half and when Thompson completed her hat-trick, off another pass by Walsh, on the hour mark it seemed to be game over. Full-back Caitlin Beevers, who celebrated her 17th birthday last week, is a rising star of the women’s game.
The first female to referee at Wembley, when she took control of this season’s Champion Schools final, she is set to make her England debut against France in Carcassonne later this month.
She made a couple of try-saving tackles in the first half and got Rhinos back into the game 15 minutes from time, taking a 20-metre tap and outpacing the defence on a sprint to the line.
Courtney Hill’s conversion cut the gap to four points and her pass sent Suze Hill over for the equalising try.
The Australian half-back had a kick to win the game, but it was from the touchline and fell narrowly off target.
Cuthbertson accepted it would have been unjust on Wigan, also in their first season, had Rhinos pulled the game from the fire.
He said: “We shot ourselves in the foot for 65 minutes. Then we started to play the way we know how to play in the last 15 minutes, but it just wasn’t enough.
“Wigan made the most of their field position and we didn’t counter-attack well enough. I think we’ve learned a valuable lesson and it’s something we can learn from and move forward from.”
Promoting women’s rugby league has been a mission for Cuthbertson this season.
He added: “To have been so close and to get beaten by a penalty goal in the 79th minute, those kind of games that go right down to the wire are great for the game.
“We have achieved a lot this year.
“It has been brilliant and just to get the game up and running as Leeds Rhinos women’s team is an achievement in its own right.
“To grow it and see how it has become established in Leeds has been really encouraging.”
There was success for Leeds side Stanningley in the Women’s Championship Grand Final, played as a curtain-raiser to the Super League decider.
Stanningley, who had finished second in the league, retained their title with a 20-12 win over Leigh Miners Rangers thanks to a hat-trick of tries by Hayley Fielding and touchdowns from Jodie Davies and Vikki Hayley.
Leeds Rhinos women: Beevers, S Hill, Booth, Robinson, Laverick, Butcher, C Hill, Johnson, Marshall, Anderson, Staveley, Spurr, Lacey. Subs Townend, Nuttall, Kerrigan, Oldroyd.
Wigan Warriors women: Greenfield, Burrows, Thompson, Wilson, Davis, Walsh, Harrison, Goodburn, Hall, Hammond, Sibbald, Temple, Apin. Subs Speakman, Foley, Baggaley, Hennessey.
Referee: A Billington (Widnes).