SCRUM-HALF LUKE Gale and new captain Stevie Ward both impressed as Leeds Rhinos retained the Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge Trophy with a comprehensive 30-4 win over Wakefield Trinity.
The pair have had their well-documented injury problems, but both gave an indication of what could be in store this season if they stay fit.
All round it was an encouraging first hit-out for Leeds who scored six tries and conceded only one.
Wakefield scrambled well in defence for the most part, though a couple of big gaps opened from acting-half, but they have a long way to go with ball in hand and nobody really stood out.
Leeds dominated the first half to lead 10-0, but Trinity pulled a try back at the start of the second and threatened to make a game of it until their winger Lee Kershaw was sin-binned and Rhinos scored three tries in eight minutes against 12 men.
Getting through Boxing Day, or any pre-season game, injury-free is always a priority, but Wakefield substitute George King was hurt early in the second half and – after a long delay – left the field on a stretcher.
Gale had not played since October, 2018, having undergone knee and Achilles surgery since his previous game, but got through 66 minutes and was very good.
Fitness is the only real question-mark over a player who was Man of Steel and an England international two years ago, but he didn’t look like someone coming back from such serious injuries and so long a lay-off.
He was lively from the start; his kicking was good, he fired out some good passes and made one good half-break close to Wakefield’s line. The only negative was a 50 per cent goal kicking return, though that won’t be his job when Rhyse Martin is in the team.
At half-time Rob Lui, who started at stand-off, was taken off and Richie Myler came on to play alongside Gale in the halves.
It’s a tough situation for Myler who has lost his first-choice status, but his positive attitude has been a credit to him and he looked good, providing the final pass for Leeds’ third try and assisting in the fourth.
Ward was at home as captain, defended well, made several strong runs and scored a terrific solo try.
It was Rhinos’ best Boxing Day effort for some time and they appeared further on in terms of attack than is normally the case at Christmas.
Leeds got over Trinity’s line four times in the opening 13 minutes, but were thwarted by terrific defence on each occasion.
Harry Newman was held up from Rob Lui’s long pass and at the end of the same set Leeds kept the ball alive, Jack Walker dabbed a kick through and Alex Sutcliffe forced his way over the line, but the visitors prevented him getting the ball down.
The fact Rhinos had Newman on the right-wing, outside Liam Sutcliffe, highlights one issue Rhinos need to address – a lack of depth in the outside-backs.
With wingers Tom and Luke Briscoe both on the casualty list Rhinos are having to improvise and it will be a big problem if full-back Jack Walker – who returned from shoulder surgery – gets a knock.
Another big forward, in addition to Aussie Matt Prior who is due to arrive in the next few days, would also be welcome, but the pack all did well today.
After 13 minutes Ash Handley became the third Leeds player held up over the whitewash and in the same set Ward was the fourth.
All of them would have expected to score when fully match-sharp, but Trinity’s last-ditch defence was an encouraging sign for them.
They were eventually undone on 21 minutes by Cameron Smith who sliced over from acting-half 20 metres out after successive penalties. Gale added the extras.
Wakefield had to wait until the 26th minute for their first attacking opportunity, which came following a knock-on by Konrad Hurrell.
They moved the ball right in lively fashion, but Pitts’ pass towards the wing was intercepted by Handley.
After half an hour Trinity were awarded three successive penalties, following a fumble in Leeds’ half by Adam Cuthbertson, but a forward pass by Josh Wood to King let the hosts off the hook.
They then received a penalty, Ward carried them to the line with a surging run from Gale’s smart pass, but Hurrell – who looked very strong – powered over from acting-half.
After that Trinity wasted another chance when Jacob Miller’s kick took a wicked bounce and was picked up by Matty Ashurst. There was a huge overlap, but Leeds somehow got back to shut the door after Atkins, Pitts and Lee Kershaw had handled.
Trinity’s first-half chances came off Leeds errors and a knock-on by Jack Walker paved the way for the visitors to get back into the game three minutes after the break.
Wakefield forced a drop out in the resulting set and following that Kershaw’s excellent diving finish at the flag – from Max Jowitt’s pass – broke their duck, though Ryan Hampshire could not convert.
Wakefield were reduced to 12 players for 10 minutes with half an hour left, after Myler kicked over the line, but was pulled back by Kershaw as he chased.
Referee Liam Moore decided it wasn’t worth a penalty try, but following the tap, Myler came up with a lovely pass to send Alex Sutcliffe over.
Sutcliffe did well during a dual-registration spell at Featherstone Rovers last year and – playing in the second-row, though he can also feature at centre - impressed yesterday.
Myler was again involved with a good pass to Liam Sutcliffe who sent Newman in and then Ward scored a fine solo try to cap his eye-catching individual effort, Gale improving that to make it 24-4.
Smith, another strong performer, was held up over the line with 15 minutes left, but Brad Dwyer exploited gap at acting-half to zip in for the final try, which Gale converted.
Leeds Rhinos: J Walker, Newman, L Sutcliffe, Hurrell, Handley, Lui, Gale, Seumanufagai, Johnson, Oledzki, A Sutcliffe, Ward, Smith. Subs: Dwyer, Myler, Cuthbertson, Donaldson, Broadbent, Albert.
Wakefield Trinity: A Walker, Kershaw, Lyne, Atkins, Croft, Hampshire, Miller, Green, Wood, Tanginoa, Pitts, Ashurst, Crowther. Subs J Wood, Tangata, King, Gwaze, Jowitt, Bailey.
Referee: Liam Moore (Wigan).