Leeds End Wakefield's Season and Extend Their Own

Leeds Rhinos 42-20 Wakefield Trinity Wildcats

After a quiet summer in the city, ‘move-in weekend’ ensured that Leeds was a hive of activity on Saturday as students returned to the University of Leeds. Once again, you couldn’t move for students and, as such, the place was bustling.

Also returning to Leeds, and more specifically, Headingley, were the Super League Play-Offs where the sense of excitement and anticipation were dripping off the terraces as Leeds Rhinos prepared to entertain near neighbours, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in the first of the competition’s Elimination encounters.

Fans were treated to the sight of St Helens upsetting favourites, Warrington Wolves, on the big screen in the evening’s first Play-Off game – though not an Elimination fixture – and a similar upset would end the Rhinos’ season. Facing them were Super League’s in-form team as Wakefield had sneaked into the Play-Offs after a run of seven successive wins had earned them an 8th-placed finish.

The belief that run had instilled in Trinity was reflected in an away end packed to the rafters for the knockout opener. The home crowd were in good voice and both teams came racing out of the blocks for a game that would make or break each of their 2012 campaigns.

15 minutes in, and after Leeds had looked the likelier, Wakefield made the breakthrough after their first foray deep into the Rhinos’ base as Ben Cockayne went over on the left wing. This presented Paul Sykes with a difficult conversion opportunity and the talented left-footer missed the chance to add two points, with the Wildcats 4-0 to the good.

Space opened up for the away side five minutes later but Sykes’ pass to the onrushing Cockayne went forward and Leeds breathed a sigh of relief. That sigh of relief turned to cheers all round as Kallum Watkins jinked pass Cockayne and Sykes to set Rob Burrow free to try on the right hand side in the 23rd minute. Kevin Sinfield made no mistake with conversion and the Rhinos took a 6-4 lead into a battle that was starting to heat up into an absorbing spectacle.

A one-two between Lee Smith and Cockayne ended with the former Rhinos man going over forWakefieldin the 32nd minute and, once again, the momentum of the game shifted towards the Wildcats. Sykes grabbed his first two points of the night but the 10-6 lead Trinity held was going slightly against the run of play. Leeds were going to have to wise up to Wakefield’s counter-attacking football to avoid a termination of their topsy-turvy season and the game was still fairly even going into half-time.

With half a minute remaining Leeds earned their, and Burrow’s, second try of the game after Watkins showed immense skill to dummy the ball away from the Wakefield defence and send the Rhinos hooker over to score in the centre, presenting Sinfield with an easy conversion and reclaim the home side’s slight two-point advantage. The classy try hadLeedsfans in raptures and ensured Brian McDermott’s half-time team talk would be a less fraught affair with the Rhinos leading 12-10.

Two minutes into the second-half Wakefield put Leeds on the backfoot again as Frankie Mariano got away from his markers and passed to Richard Mathers to touch down in the left corner and Sykes scored his second conversion. 16-12 to the Wildcats and the Rhinos would have to pull out all the stops to overcome a team drunk on the winning formula.

Leeds are nothing if dogged, though, and replied in the 49th minute after Ryan Hall sprinted 70 metres up the field and, after being tackled, the ball found Sinfield who kicked into the grateful arms of Ben Jones-Bishop who belly-flopped for the Rhinos’ third try of the game. The inspirational Leeds captain converted and the Rhinos recovered the two-point lead for the third time; 18-16.

The home side were upping the ante in the hope of not losing their lead by testing the adage: attack is the best form of defence. Leeds pushed to further their advantage and somehow contrived to not add another try with the Wakefield defence split and no Rhino taking it upon themselves to go for glory after Zak Hardaker kicked through for a host of recipients.

Leeds were deserving of a more comfortable score-line and Danny McGuire became Super League’s all-time top try scorer, in the 62nd minute, after an inventive forward run from Burrow. Sinfield secured the extras and there was finally some daylight between the sides with the Rhinos 24-16 up. It was a fitting way for McGuire to reach the 200-mark after the scrum half had missed out on the Challenge Cup Final.

Play-Off progress was surely in the bag five minutes later when Hardaker broke from inside his 10-metre line to race all the way through to Wakefield’s posts. The lung-busting run gave Sinfield the easiest of conversions and the 30-16 lead effectively ended a tight contest between the two West Yorkshire rivals. Ali Lautiti was having none of it, though, and pounced on a loose ball to become the second ex-Leeds player to try on the night.

Sykes couldn’t convert and meant Wakefield had ten minutes to score 10 or more points to resurrect their season. The possibility nearly looked a good bet after Danny Washbrook pierced through the Leeds defence but sent a wayward pass behind his Wakefield colleague when a swift try appeared assured. Jones-Bishop made Trinity pay, in the 72nd minute, when he finished off a six-man passing move in the right-hand corner and Sinfield maintained his 100% record to giveLeedsa commanding 36-20 advantage.

Jones-Bishop claimed his hat-trick after more wizardry from Watkins sent the right winger on course for a seventh Rhinos try. Sinfield kicked the extras to make the score 42-20; an unassailable lead. Kylie Leuluai escaped with a warning after appearing to strike Wakefield’s Peter Fox in a tackle but the night belonged to Leedsand their team of experienced big game winners.

Burrow was given the man-of-the-match award, with Watkins surely not far behind the voting, and as the city of Leeds settles back into a beacon of student activity so too do the Rhinos show their Play-Off pedigree as the season reaches its exciting climax. Credit to Wakefield, who forced the Rhinos to dig deep into their energy reserves, and had their fairytale seven-match winning streak brought to a spectacular end but the buzz is back in Leeds as the south of France beckons…

Author: Andrew Belt

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