Leeds Rhinos ended Wakefield Wildcats’ four-game winning run with a 20-18 victory in a close-fought Super League contest at Headingley on Friday night.
Wildcats, who could have moved into the play-offs with victory and had other results gone their way, defended impressively throughout to frustrate their hosts for large parts and produced a spirited display to push the champions all the way in the first of back-to-back matches between the West Yorkshire rivals in the space of a week.
Leeds led 10-6 at half-time and edged further ahead just before the hour mark through Joel Moon to seemingly put Brian McDermott’s men in control.
But Wakefield, who had lost their previous seven matches at Headingley, showed plenty of spirit to hit back throughout the night and Ali Lauitiiti powered over against his former club to get the visitors right back in it.
Even when Ryan Hall went over to push Rhinos eight points ahead with four minutes to go, for what proved the decisive try, Wakefield refused to throw in the towel as Frankie Mariano scored to set-up a grandstand finish with less than two minutes left.
Leeds hung on, however, with Tim Smith spilling the ball dead straight from the restart, to secure the two points and an eighth consecutive home win over the Wildcats to make it 1-0 in what Richard Agar described as a ‘mini series’ between the sides.
Agar was forced to ring the changes to his Wildcats team due to injuries to Dean Collis (hamstring) and Paul Sykes (leg). Reece Lyne replaced Collis at centre, while Danny Washbrook moved to stand-off in Sykes’s absence and Kyle Trout came in at loose forward.
Leeds also had their injury problems with Mitch Achurch, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Stevie Ward, Joe Vickery, Ryan Bailey, Danny McGuire and Kevin Sinfield all sidelined, but Brett Delaney and Kyle Leulaui returned.
Rhinos came flying out of the traps and a superb 40/20 kick from Liam Sutcliffe had the hosts in good position from their first set. It almost resulted in the opening try but Peter Fox produced a brilliant try-saving tackle on Ryan Hall in the corner.
Leeds hit top gear from the off and Fox came to Wakefield’s rescue again minutes later when Joel Moon broke free on the last tackle for the hosts and attempted a kick and chase only for the Wildcats winger to thwart the danger.
Wildcats’ first threat came eight minutes in when Tim Smith’s superb pass out wide put Fox away on the right. Lee Smith was in support and Fox found him, but so did the Rhinos defence 20 metres short of the whitewash.
The visitors were having to work hard in defence early on and Rhinos continued to pile the pressure on with Rob Burrow getting their second 40/20 of the game. Brad Singleton was held up over the line from the resulting set but Wakefield again proved stubborn at the back.
Wildcats alleviated the pressure as the half approached its midway point. Rob Burrow’s error allowed Agar’s men into good field position and Danny Kirmond came inches away from touching down a testing Tim Smith grubber kick over the line.
After a good quality opening the game produced three ball spills on the spin. And from the last, from Wildcats skipper Kirmond, Leeds grabbed the opening try. It came after 24 minutes as Kallum Watkins fed Ben Jones-Bishop in the corner for the first try of the match. Zak Hardaker failed to add the conversion.
Wildcats needed a reply and they got one almost immediately. After Kyle Trout had been stopped short of the line minutes earlier, Tim Smith’s grubber kick bounced wickedly, deflected back off Jones-Bishop and Andy Raleigh was there to touchdown. Lee Smith converted to give the visitors the lead.
The match had burst into life and just as quickly as Wakefield had responded to going behind, Rhinos did exactly the same. Four minutes after Raleigh’s score Jones-Bishop grabbed his second in the corner from more pin-point Sutcliffe kicking to see the hosts regain the advantage. Rob Burrow took over kicking duties and swung a tough kick over the posts.
That is how it stayed until half-time and Rhinos looked to quickly extend their lead on the restart. Jones-Bishop was sniffing a hat-trick and it took a last-ditch Ben Cockayne try out wide to thwart him three minutes into the second half.
The game was nicely poised as the hour mark approached with neither side able to breach their opponents’ defence in the early stages. But Wakefield were dealt a blow when skipper Kirmond came off with a leg injury eight minutes after the restart.
Leeds grabbed the next crucial score in the 58th minute when Burrow scooted along the Wildcats line and found Moon with a long pass. The Leeds centre still had Fox to beat but he sidestepped the Wildcats winger to eventually ease over and make it 14-6.
Rhinos were looking to cement their dominance and Reece Lyne did well to touch Hardaker’s grubber kick for dead as Leeds piled more pressure on the Wakefield line.
Wildcats were not done, however, and Leeds had Brett Delaney to thank for a superb last-ditch tackle on Kyle Amor when the Cumbrian looked to be try-bound. Paul Aiton almost tricked his way over from the same set but Wakefield could not make their pressure count.
They did shortly after when Leeds conceded a penalty and Lee Smith’s huge kick got Wildcats in a threatening position. It eventually resulted in Ali Lauitiiti rumbling over against his former club with 12 minutes to play and Lee Smith’s conversion got Wildcats to within two points of their hosts.
Leeds looked to have sealed their win when Burrow’s long kick on the last found Hall to score in the corner. The Rhinos scrum-half added the kick to seemingly send the hosts on their way to victory.
But an inventive kick-off from Lee Smith saw him find Cockayne from the restart and the ‘Cats winger powered forward with Leeds caught napping. From the same set Frankie Mariano bundled his way over and Lee Smith’s conversion brought Wakefield to within two points of their hosts with less than two minutes left.
It set-up a big finish but Tim Smith frustratingly spilled the ball straight from the restart and Leeds hung on for the two points.
Rhinos: Hardaker, Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, Burrow, Kirke, McShane, Peacock (c), Ablett, Clarkson, Singleton. Subs: Keinhorst, Moore, Delaney, Foster.
Wildcats: Mathers, Fox, Lyne, L Smith, Cockayne, Washbrook, T Smith, Poore, Aiton, Amor, Mariano, Kirmond, Trout. Subs: Lauitiiti, Raleigh, Wilkes, Wildie.
Referee: Phil Bentham.