Wakefield Trinity Wildcats will be sick of the sight of Leeds Rhinos after suffering a second slender defeat against the Super League champions in a week when they went down 31-24 at the Rapid Solicitors Stadium on Friday night.
For the second time Wakefield pushed their West Yorkshire neighbours all the way, producing some superb defence throughout in a thrilling see-saw encounter, played in front of Wakefield’s biggest crowd of the season so far, that eventually swung Rhinos’ way.
Two Paul Aiton tries had Richard Agar’s men deservedly leading 12-6 until just before the hour when Ben Jones-Bishop scored a breakaway try and Kevin Sinfield’s penalty goal had the visitors ahead for the first time six minutes later.
Joel Moon’s try put the Rhinos seemingly in control but two tries in four minutes, from Justin Poore and Frankie Mariano, had Wakefield in the ascendency with six minutes left.
But Sinfield’s conversion from a Carl Ablett try swung the game back Leeds’ way by a point and Rob Burrow’s late effort made the scoreline a flattering one for Brian McDermott’s men.
The frustrating defeat leaves Wildcats a point outside the play-off spots with five games to go ahead of a crucial home game against top-eight rivals Bradford Bulls next week.
Matters were not helped when Wakefield were forced to make a late change to their starting line-up with a knee injury flaring up for skipper Danny Kirmond in the warm-up. Ali Lauitiiti moved into the second row from the bench and Reece Lyne came into the matchday squad. Danny Washbrook continued in the halves and Kyle Trout at loose forward, with Taulima Tautai returning on the bench.
Rhinos were boosted by the return of Kevin Sinfield at hooker and Brian McDermott went with Jones-Bishop, who scored a brace in Rhinos’ win at Headingley a week earlier, at full-back, Zak Hardaker in the centres and James Duckworth making his debut on the right wing.
In a repeat of last week’s Headingley meeting, Leeds dominated the early possession and Wildcats were forced to defend deep and work hard - a trait they would have to continue throughout the first half.
The visitors thought their pressure had told eight minutes in when Hall got on the end of a Burrow high bomb and off-loaded for Moon to touchdown but the referee deemed the winger’s pass as forward.
Wildcats’ first threat came a minute later when Tim Smith and Danny Washbrook linked to feed Trout but the Rhinos defence stopped the loose forward short of the line.
A knock-on from Burrow from the next set alleviated the pressure for Wakefield and they managed to take full advantage to open the scoring. Paul Aiton picked up a loose ball and carried two Leeds men over the line with him to score. Lee Smith added the conversion.
Defences were on top for long spells in the first half and when Leeds did get through to touchdown through Ablett the try was disallowed for an obstruction by former Wildcats loan man Brad Singleton.
Lee Smith missed a penalty to edge Wildcats further ahead and at the other end the hosts had to kick a testing grubber from Liam Sutcliffe dead as the visitors continued to look for their opening points.
They came seven minutes before the interval when winger James Duckworth marked his debut with a try. Calls for a forward pass in the build-up fell on deaf ears and Sutcliffe provided the assist for the Rhinos youngster to ease over. Sinfield added the extras on his return to level the scores.
Wakefield made a storming start to the second half and edged back ahead five minutes after the restart. Tim Smith’s grubber left Hall with a tough job to clear his line and Wildcats forced the winger down in his in-goal area. From the next set Lauitiiti found the supporting Lee Smith and he spotted a gap between two Leeds defenders to feed Tim Smith, who in turn found Aiton for his second try of the night. Lee Smith added the conversion.
It lifted the hosts and they forced the Rhinos to play in their own half for the opening 15 minutes after the resumption. Moon did not help his side’s cause with two knock-ons and Ablett also got in on the act to help Wakefield keep possession, though Agar’s men could not make that pressure count as Rhinos eventually cleared their lines.
Wildcats were still alert at the back and Mathers did well to punch a dangerous Sinfield grubber dead with Duckworth and Hardaker ready to pounce. When Sinfield’s next testing kick did get through, Duckworth knocked-on and Wakefield were let off the hook.
Leeds did manage to level midway through the half, however, when Jones-Bishop scored his third try in two weeks against the Wildcats. Wakefield enjoyed a good set but on the last tackle Tim Smith tried to collect his own kick only for Jones-Bishop, playing full-back, to collect and race away from the chasing Wildcats pack to score a length-of-the-pitch try. Sinfield comfortably added the two.
The way the game was going a drop-goal winner always looked like it could prove the difference and Sinfield opted to take the one point with 16 minutes left to edge the visitors ahead for the first time.
Former Rhino Lee Smith kicked out on the full from the kick-off and things for worse for Wildcats a minutes later when Leeds extended their advantage. Hall provided the assist for Moon out on the left and the centre made up for his earlier errors by touching down. Sinfield’s conversion made it 19-12 to the visitors.
But, as at Headingley, Wakefield refused to lie down and three minutes after Moon’s score the hosts hauled themselves back to within a point of Leeds. Aiton this time provided the assist for Poore to power over for his first Super League try. Lee Smith converted.
It got better four minutes later when Mariano took a Mathers pass to ease over for his fourth try in five matches and fire Wakefield back ahead with eight minutes to go. Lee Smith again converted.
The drama was not over there and with five minutes left the momentum swung back in Leeds’ favour. Jamie Peacock was held up over the line by Mathers but shortly after a Sinfield grubber kick found Ablett to touch down. Sinfield’s crucial kick edged the visitors back ahead.
Wildcats pushed for what would have been a dramatic winner in the final minutes but Rhinos took advantage of the hosts’ late gung-ho approach with Burrow scoring the final try on the hooter. Sinfield made it six from six with the boot to see Leeds to a quick-fire ‘double’ over their neighbours.
Wildcats: Mathers, Fox, Collis, L Smith, Cockayne, Washbrook, T Smith, Poore, Aiton, Amor, Mariano, Lauitiiti, Trout. Subs: Lyne, Wilkes, Tautai, Raleigh.
Tries: Aiton 11, 45, Poore 68, Mariano 72. Goals: L Smith (4/5).
Rhinos: Jones-Bishop, Duckworth, Hardaker, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, Burrow, Singleton, Sinfield, Peacock, Clarkson, Ablett, Delaney. Subs: Leuluai, Kirke, Moore, Foster.
Tries: Duckworth 33, Sinfield 58, Moon 65, Ablett 75, Burrow 79. Goals: Sinfield (6/6).
Referee: Ben Thaler.