THERE WERE more positive signs for Leeds Rhinos as they won their final full-scale pre-season game 22-10 at Wigan Warriors.
Rhinos hit back from 10-0 down after 23 minutes to carve out a morale-boosting – if nothing else – win in the DW Stadium fog.
It was Wigan’s first proper hit-out and they, like Leeds, gave some fringe players a run in the second half, but any victory over the Warriors is a good one, especially away.
Rhinos began with their strongest-available line-up and didn’t have things all their own way in a testimonial for Wigan’s forward Liam Farrell, but, for all but a 15-minute spell in the first half, they were comfortably the better team.
Leeds had a scare when Ava Seumanufagai took a bang to a knee and hobbled off after just 10 minutes.
He did not return, though word from the dressing room was that was a “precaution” and he is not hurt badly.
Rhinos were already without their other first-choice prop Matt Prior who was hit by a sickness bug which also ruled out Cameron Smith who had been one of Leeds’ best in two previous pre-season games.
With loose-forward Adam Cuthbertson prominent, Leeds had looked good before Seumanufagai’s departure, but – though Mik Oledzki was again impressive and big teenager Thomas Holroyd got some valuable game time – they lacked size when their metre-making front-rower went off and therfore struggled for a while.
Dom Crosby is expected to be available inside the first month of the season after his year-long lay-off, but bringing in another big, experienced forward would strengthen the team considerably.
That said, Holroyd, who had a taste of first-team action last year, will benefit from the game time and did not look out of place.
James Donaldson, who came on for Seumanufagai, put a solid shift in and Stevie Ward, who confusingly wore the No 34 jersey in the second-half, also produced some nice touches and got stuck in defensively, playing the first 63 minutes.
After their good start, Rhinos were second-best for most of the opening period and went 10-0 down, but scored either side of the interval to level the scores.
Leeds dominated the third quarter without being able to turn that into more than four points, but a penalty goal and couple of late tries underlined their superiority.
The visitors made a lively start and went close after eight minutes when Ash Handley had a run from Jack Walker’s long pass, but was tackled into touch near the flag.
A couple of minutes after that Walker picked Harry Newman out on the other wing, but he dropped the pass with the line begging.
Walker again caught the eye with a faultless performance at full-back.
Those opportunities were an indication Leeds can attack on both sides, but such chances need to be taken when the real business starts.
It took Wigan a while to get into the game, but they opened the scoring after 16 minutes through new signing Jake Bibby who was put over on the last by fellow recruit from Salford Red Devils Jackson Hastings.
The lead was increased seven minutes later through Willia Isa, who was sent into a gap by a smart pass from Sean O’Loughlin, Zak Hardaker landing the conversion.
Rhinos had almost no ball for a long spell after Seumanufagai went off, conceding a couple of penalties and twice handing over possession in their territory early in the count, issues which cost them heavily last season, particularly early on.
There was also a lapse of concentration when Liam Marshall was allowed to race through the middle from a tap penalty near Wigan’s line. His failure to use a player in support and then an interception by Newman later in the set saved Rhinos on that occasion.
And, on a occasion when Leeds got near Wigan’s line late in the first half, Rob Lui’s pass sailed out of Liam Sutcliffe’s and Newman’s reach into touch.
Luke Gale returned to the side after missing the previous game with a slight quad strain.
His kicking looked capable of creating something and did on the final play of the half when he dabbed the ball between the posts, Richie Myler was obstructed as he chased, but the ball bounced kindly and he took it anyway to touchdown for a try which – with Rhyse Martin off the field – Gale improved.
Myler was again used as Leeds’ interchange hooker, coming on at acting-half when Brad Dwyer was rested midway through the first half. Myler looked comfortable in the role and that’s probably how Leeds will go in the opening rounds during Kruise Leeming’s recovery from a knee injury. Gale was also very good, especially in the second half.
Leeds missed an opportunity 10 minutes into the second half when Konrad Hurrell perhaps could have forced his way over, but instead passed to Handley who was again barged over the sideline.
There was no hesitation from Handley moments later when his unconverted try squared the scores.
Gale held the ball up before supplying Ward who made a late run and found the winger with a clever pass.
Martin was off-target with the conversion attempt, but edged Leeds in front through a penalty goal 12 minutes left after a dangerous tackle on Holroyd.
The decision to go for goal was surprising, but it showed Rhinos’ desire to win, something which shone through in the second period.
With Prior and Smith missing out, Luke Briscoe and Muizz Mustapha got a call-up on the bench, both getting on in the final quarter.
Briscoe – freshly-recovered from a groin injury – and Mustapha had been due to play for Featherstone Rovers at Hull KR, but Leeds’ Sam Walters and Tyler Dupree took their place.
Mustapha’s first action was to knock-on in the set from the restart after the penalty. A clearing run by Rhys Evans spared his blushes and at the end of that set the Nigerian-born England academy forward was on hand to take Myler’s pass and plunge over.
Martin added the extras and though another Mustapha knock-on put Leeds under late pressure some strong goalline defence kept Wigan out before Liam, Sutcliffe took advantage of an error to complete the scoring – and an encouraging afternoon – on the final play.
The penalty count was nine-eight in Leeds’ favour (five-five in the first half).
Wigan Warriors: French, Marshall, Hardaker, Bibby, J Burgess, Hastings, Leuluai, Partington, Powell, Clubb, Isa, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Subs Smithies, Greenwood, havard, Bullock, Clark, Hankinson, Smith, Byrne, Bourouh, Jake Shorrocks, Halsall, Pearce-Pauk, Joe Shorrocks.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker, Newman, L Sutcliffe, Hurrell, Handley, Lui, Gale, Seumanufagai, Dwyer, Oledzki, Ward, Martin, Cuthbertson. Subs Donaldson, Evans, Myler, McLelland, Mellor, Mustapha, Holroyd, L Briscoe.
Referee: Marcus Griffiths (Widnes).