Rampant Rhinos Reach Wembley Showpiece
An outstanding first-half performance from Leeds Rhinos put the Yorkshire club on course to beat Wigan Warriors 39-28 in the Challenge Cup Semi-Final on Saturday evening. LS Sport’s Andrew Belt reports…
The deserved outcome, secured at Huddersfield’s Galpharm Stadium, ensured that Leeds will be at Wembley on the 25 August to contest their third Challenge Cup Final in as many years.
Rugby League fever had taken its grip on West Yorkshire as pubs all over Leeds were filled with armchair supporters whilst the trains to Huddersfield were heaving with Rhinos fans excited for the day ahead. Carriages crackled with anticipation for what was likely to be a big test for Brian McDermott’s team, having not beaten Wigan in over a year with Shaun Wane’s Warriors comfortably the best team in Super League this term.
With the pre-match entertainment in full-swing, Ronnie the Rhino came haring out of the tunnel to dive through the posts in front of the Leeds fans to energise the travelling hordes; Wigan’s Max Mascot made a few half-hearted gestures to the Warriors fans.
The battle of the mascots had gone Leeds’ way and it was this marked contrast that carried on into the teams’ set-up during a frenetic opening 12 minutes. The Wigan back line proved to be as dozy as Max Mascot as two errors of judgement from Sam Tomkins and another from Josh Charnley gifted possession to Leeds high up the pitch to race into a three-try lead in a dream start for the Rhinos.
A high kick from Leeds captain, Kevin Sinfield, was fumbled by Tomkins four minutes into the tie and Ryan Hall’s chase allowed him to capitalise and score the first points of the game.
Sinfield kicked to put Leeds 6-0 up and used his right foot again to successfully produce a 40-20 with Tomkins misjudging the ball’s flight and, once again being the guilty party, as the Rhinos went on to attack purposefully, touching down for the second try after nine minutes thanks to Kallum Watkin’s smart offload to Ben Jones-Bishop, who forced his way over the line.
Jamie Peacock passed to his team-mate to score between the posts
Sinfield’s goal attempt went wide this time but Leeds kept up the momentum and touched down a third time when Charnley lost the ball 20 yards from his own goal line and a Zak Hardaker’s deep run from full back was rewarded when Jamie Peacock passed to his team-mate to score between the posts.
Sinfield couldn’t miss the extras and Leeds, remarkably, were 16-0 in the ascendancy. Leeds were looking a yard sharper than their opponents and the first quarter showed what a team containing numerous World Club Challenge and Grand Final winners were capable of on big occasions.
Yet, in Tomkins, Wigan had the greatest weapon in their armoury and an awe-inspiring 30-yard run just after the 20-minute mark began the attack which ended with George Carmont scoring the Warriors’ first try of the game.
Only a couple of minutes later, Gareth Hock made a mockery of the Leeds right-hand side as he ran 40 yards to score a memorable solo effort and Tomkins’ goals meant that Wigan’s quick-fire response left them trailing the Rhinos by just four points.
Leeds fans, wincing at the memory of the 50-8 defeat to Wigan at the beginning of June, started to fear the worst and when Hall went over for his second try in the 26th minute the Rhinos end was slow to react such was the whirlwind nature of this high-scoring semi-final.
Danny McGuire forced his way through Wigan’s left-hand side
Danny McGuire forced his way through Wigan’s left-hand side and arced a lofted pass to Hall, who brushed off a couple of challenges to nick in with a try that halted the Warriors’ inroads that had threatened to blow the Rhinos off-course.
In the 31st minute, Ryan Bailey squeezed his right hand over the line and Sinfield followed up with a goal to put some distance between the teams again at 26-12.
By this point, Messrs Sinfield, Hall and Rob Burrow were controlling the game and the Leeds captain produced a kick that invited Jones-Bishop to barge his way over the line to give the Rhinos a massive 30-12 advantage. It had been a performance of such ferocity, fearlessness and poise that even when Sinfield hit the post to miss out on extending the lead by two points the ecstasy on one side of the stadium and subdued nature pervading the other spoke volumes for McDermott’s side; though Leeds were dealt a significant blow minutes before the break when Ben Flower secured a Warriors try after great movement from Brett Finch, before Tomkins converted and then scored a 40-yard penalty to earn Wigan eight points against the run of play to add respectability to the score-line at half-time – 30-20.
If Leeds had been breathtaking in their free-flowing creative forward movement in the first-half then it was their resilient defending in the second 40 minutes that stood out as they withstood strong Wigan pressure in the fight for Challenge Cup progress. Leeds went over first in fortuitous circumstances as a McGuire knock-on was missed in the lead-up to Hardaker’s lung-busting run and finish in the 50th-minute.
Sinfield kicked through the posts and a 36-20 lead gave Wigan an uphill mountain to climb. Just before the hour-mark, a clever chip from Tomkins was picked up by Jeff Lima and he strode past the Leeds defence to hand the Warriors a much-needed lifeline.
Hardaker and Carl Ablett tackled brilliantly to prevent two separate try efforts
Last week, Sinfield had scored a drop-goal against Hull FC to ensure the points-gap between the two sides would be too large to make up, and the veteran repeated the trick to edge Leeds closer to victory with Wigan desperate to score some tries.
Hardaker and Carl Ablett tackled brilliantly to prevent two separate try efforts from the Warriors being fulfilled, and when Burrow found Hall 20 yards out Charnley tackled with the left winger yards away from scoring. Hall naively scurried over the line rather than wait for team-mates to set up a decent opportunity and the look on Sinfield’s face told the youngster that he’d wasted a golden opportunity to win the match.
Charnley endeared himself further by securing a try five minutes from time and the agonising wait for Rhinos fans was ended by a penalty scored in the final minute by the peerless Sinfield as he capped off a stunning effort from Leeds to reach the Final and return to the scene of recent disappointments.
The lowest points of McDermott’s reign (2011 Challenge Cup Final; 50-8 loss at Headingley) were inflicted by Wigan so it was fitting that the Rhinos got one over their Lancashire rivals to signal the peak of Leeds’ 2012 campaign and maybe finally overcome the Yorkshire giant’s Wembley hoodoo once and for all.
Handshakes between Rhinos and Warriors supporters after the game epitomised the good nature of the game and none of the modest 12, 860 crowd could claim to be disappointed by a thrilling encounter that will whet the appetite of any Rugby League supporter for the Wembley feast awaiting on Bank Holiday August weekend.