England centre Kallum Watkins celebrated his 200th appearance for Leeds with the all-important try as the Rhinos made it four victories in a row to stay level with Betfred Super League leaders Castleford Tigers.
Watkins’s England team-mate George Williams threatened to ruin the party by scoring two solo tries on the day he confirmed NRL clubs were watching him but the Rhinos did just enough to secure a 26-18 victory in front of 17,030 crowd at Headingley.
Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington had promised a review a month after the club’s record 66-10 defeat by Castleford and it is safe to assume that coach Brian McDermott’s job is now secure.
Wigan have now gone three games without a win to drop to fifth but only a fool would write off a successful title defence.
They had Oliver Gildart and Ryan Sutton back from injury but were still without eight members of their likely starting 13 and eight of their players were aged 21 or under.
Leeds took an early lead with Ashton Golding’s penalty but it did not take Williams long to show his class as he forced a goal-line drop-out with a neat grubber kick before jinking his way through the home defence for his first try after 12 minutes.
While Wigan are by no means currently a one-man team, the Rhinos’ attacking threat came from all parts and they regained the lead with two tries in a five-minute spell midway through the first half.
An interception by Jimmy Keinhorst broke up a Wigan attack and Watkins ran onto Carl Ablett’s pass to race clear and get winger Ryan Hall over while makeshift half-back Joel Moon took a leaf out of Williams’s book by dancing his way through for a try on the last tackle.
Golding kicked both conversions to put his side 14-6 in front but Williams responded with another individual effort after 31 minutes and Morgan Escare’s second goal cut the gap to just two points.
That’s how it stayed until half-time after Watkins was denied a try for an obstruction by winger Tom Briscoe in the build-up and Leeds were temporarily reduced to 12 men just before the break when second rower Brett Ferres was sin-binned for a ‘crusher’ tackle on Gildart, who was forced out of the action with a chest injury.
That did little to cool tempers which threatened to get out of hand throughout the first half and continued to simmer after the break.
Golding increased the Rhinos’ advantage with a penalty early in the second half but the pivotal moment came on 52 minutes when Wigan’s Nick Gregson had a try disallowed for a double movement and Leeds went up field to add a third try.
McGuire’s long pass on halfway got Watkins running into space and he showed his class to finish off the move and extend his side’s lead to 20-12.
Wigan were not done, however, and Liam Marshall swooped on a dropped pass by Briscoe to race over for his sixth try of his maiden Super League season and Escare was again accurate with the conversion.
The Rhinos could only breathe more easily when Ablett charged over for their fourth try three minutes from the end and Golding kicked his fifth goal from six attempts.
Leeds boss McDermott said: “We made some errors and allowed Wigan to keep snapping at our heels.
“We threatened to put more points on them, but they came back and made it a real contest.”
Highlight of the night was the long-range try by Watkins.
“It is just a joy to watch him when he’s like that,” McDermott said. “To watch him in fifth gear is worth the money on it’s own. I’d pay. They have got some speedsters Wigan, but he backed himself and said ‘catch me if you can’;.
“I thought the pass to Kallum from Danny McGuire was top drawer. Kallum’s game has got to be under-pinned by the likes of Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett and Adam Cuthbertson.”
Wigan coach Shaun Wane admitted his team were second-bet.
He said: “I’m depressed, I thought we could have won it. We weren’t smart enough, they are a fantastic team and they were the better team on the day, the best team won it.”
Leeds: Golding, Briscoe, Watkins, Keinhorst, Hall, McGuire, Moon, Garbutt, Parcell, Cuthbertson, Ablett, Ferres, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Mullally, Burrow, Delaney, Sutcliffe.
Wigan: Escare, Davies, Gildart, Forsyth, Marshall, Williams, Leuluai, Nuuausala, Powell, Flower, J. Tomkins, Isa, Clubb. Substitutes: Tautai, Sutton, Gregson, Navarrete.
Referee: B Thaler (RFL).