CHRISTMAS fixtures are a notoriously poor indicator of how any team will do when the competitive action begins, so coach Richard Agar will reflect with caution on Leeds Rhinos’ 30-4 win over Wakefield Trinity.
Even so, there were some highly encouraging signs to warm the home faithful in a 10,106 crowd, particularly the form of scrum-half Luke Gale and new captain Stevie Ward.
It was a less festive occasion for Trinity who suffered the nightmare scenario of losing a key player, forward George King, to an apparently serious injury which is likely to mean he misses the start of the Super League season next month.
At that stage, early in the second half, Wakefield had just pulled a try back and were threatening to make a game of it, having been on the back foot for most of the opening period, but the injury rattled them, they had a player sin-binned soon afterwards and finished well-beaten.
The margin would have been greater had Gale packed his kicking boots. The former Man of Steel landed three conversions from six attempts, but if he’d been told beforehand kicking would be his only negative, he would have accepted that.
Gale’s 2018 season, when he was a Castleford Tigers player, was disrupted by a serious knee injury and he then ruptured an Achilles in January, keeping him out of the entire 2019 campaign.
After 447 days of frustration the former England scrum-half looked sharp, distributed the ball well - from both hand and boot – and lifted players around him.
Knee damage restricted Ward to just six competitive appearances last season, but the second-rower also showed glimpses of how effective he can be, running strongly, defending well and scoring a fine solo try.
Others to catch the eye included 20-year-old centre/second-row Alex Sutcliffe and substitute Richie Myler, who has lost the No 7 slot to Gale, but called the shots after replacing Rob Lui at half-time.
“We talked before the game about looking like a team,” reflected Agar. “In the first game, first impressions are really important and we didn’t want those first impressions to be about any particular individual wanting to stand out and do his own thing.
“We thought it important we did it collectively and tried to work on some of the things we have been practicing. We knew we definitely would not be the finished article and there’s lots we can brush up on, but I thought collectively we worked hard for each other.
“Defensively we looked pretty solid and we scrambled well when we had to.”
Trinity were without 11 of their first 20 squad numbers and were well off the pace with ball in hand, but defended enthusiastically for the most part. Having trailed 10-0 at the break, to tries by Cameron Smith and Konrad Hurrell, they responded through young winger Lee Kershaw.
He, though, was sin-binned for a professional foul soon afterwards and Alex Sutcliffe, Harry Newman and Ward crossed during his absence before Brad Dwyer completed the scoring late on.
King’s injury, a suspected broken ankle, was Wakefield’s main concern. Coach Chris Chester said: “I feel sorry for the lad because up until that point I think he was probably one of our best middles.
“He carried the ball really well and it just took the momentum out of everybody.
“Leeds had a very experienced, strong team on the field so I was fairly happy with the effort and the attitude of the players,” he added.
Leeds Rhinos: J Walker, Newman, L Sutcliffe, Hurrell, Handley, Lui, Gale, Seumanufagai, Johnson, Oledzki, A Sutcliffe, Ward, Smith. Substitutes: Dwyer, Myler, Cuthbertson, Donaldson, Broadbent, Albert.
Wakefield Trinity: A Walker, Kershaw, Lyne, Atkins, Croft, Hampshire, Miller, Green, Wood, Tanginoa, Pitts, Ashurst, Crowther. Subs titutes: J Wood, Tangata, King, Gwaze, Jowitt, Bailey.
Referee: L Moore (Wigan).