Headingly saw a brutal battle of attrition as Warrington Wolves rediscovered their resolve to snatch victory from a Leeds Rhinos side who seem to have lost the killer instinct as captain Danny McGuire was forced off the pitch with a knee injury. This was Leeds to lose and lose it they duly did, ceding crucial tries to Warrington in both halves of the game that took it beyond them.
The first half saw the Rhinos run rampant, until it was it came to the actual business of scoring. Time and again they smashed into Warrington’s defensive line. Time and again that line held as the two sides gave their all. Players were blooded, with heads bandaged and calves battered but the scoreline remained a stubborn 0-0 into a record 36th minute. This was not for lack of chances on the part of Leeds for while Warrington’s defence was solid, their discipline was not.
The Wolves gave away three penalties in the first half, and Leeds could have established a six point lead. For some reason, which is either a lack of confidence in Zak Hardaker’s kicking, or else a love of Death or Glory, Leeds chose not to go for the safer option of two points from a kick but try for the four points of a try. Another team, another night, it might have worked, but not against this Warrington side, who held firm throughout.
Then a high tackle by Brad Singleton on Chris Sandow led to a penalty for Warrington, who opted for that same Death or Glory approach. Only this was a well-timed and well coordinated counter offensive with Sandow grabbing four points and giving Warrington a lead that went completely against the run of play. Kurt Gidley converted it for six, and suddenly Leeds earlier decisions on the penalties came back to haunt them.
As a result, Leeds started the second half with a more ruthless edge that saw Singleton make up for his mistake in the 46th minute with a try which Hardaker converted to take the Rhinos level. This saw renewed vigour from the Rhinos who sensed blood as Warrington’s resolve began to crumble. Once more the game was the Rhinos to lose, and just as they had in the first half, that killer instinct that saw them take the lead with a fantastic try by Ryan Hall in the 54th minute, simply disappeared.
Hardaker failed to convert and in the 60th minute a great run by Ben Currie for Warrington signalled that their resolve was back. Not long after a fantastic move by Warrington saw them chase Leeds back towards the latter’s try area, before a kick and quick pass saw Kevin Penny go over the line for his 50th try. Gidley duly converted and Leeds never recovered.
Even another penalty, which finally saw Leeds try for two points rather than four, failed to give them the equaliser they so badly needed, with Hardaker adding further to what had been a disappointing evening for him. His kicking alone wasn’t the cause of Leeds losing their opening for the first time in sixteen years.
The players, while providing many fine performances individually, notably Ryan Hall and Rob Burrow, lacked that collective killer instinct and desire to win that saw them triumph over Wigan in last year’s Grand Final. They were too complacent and made too many bad decisions, notably those three penalties in the first half. Had Hardaker been allowed to kick them, and made just one, Leeds would at least have had a draw.
Tonight though more should be said of Warrington’s victory, for ultimately their rally around the sixtieth minute was both superb camaraderie and led to superb rugby. While it was Penny who got the crucial try the whole team deserves credit for that, not least Kurt Gidley’s kicking, but also Ben Currie and French newcomer Benjamin Jullien.
The young Frenchman has climbed a long path, through Avignon, Brisbane and North Wales to reach his current position, but after tonight he’ll feel a lot closer to the summit. So too will his teammates, who should now believe, if they didn’t before, that this could be the year they finally lift the Superleague trophy.