CHRIS Tuson has already saved Wigan’s blushes once this season. It was perhaps inconceivable that he could do it again.
But with seconds left on the clock, the workhorse forward – the match-winner at Castleford - collected loose ball and charged over the whitewash. He smiled, the away fans cheered... but the referee’s whistle ended the hopes of a stunning comeback as quickly as they had been raised.
Richard Silverwood correctly ruled Josh Charnley had knocked the ball forward in the build-up, and Leeds clung on to a win that – on the balance of play – they probably deserved.
Having led 8-6 at the break, Wigan conjured up enough chances to win in the second-half. Trouble was, they also coughed up plenty of ball and showed naivety at vital times.
Iain Thornley crossed in the second-half after Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Joel Moon had registered tries, but a lack of composure ultimately proved their undoing.
Neither side was at their best.
The game was punctuated by moves breaking down and chances going to waste. But the errors only fuelled the drama– a case of spills leading to thrills – and the character, excitement, and seesawing scoreline made for an enjoyable, if frustrating, encounter.
Wigan were unbeaten in their last four visits to Headingley, but their recent history against Leeds wasn’t as good, having been knocked out of the Challenge Cup and Grand Final race by the eventual Super League champions.
The pre-match terrace and Twitter talk was centred on how Wigan might cope without Man of Steel Sam Tomkins, after he was ruled out with a dead-leg.
Even the bookmakers weren’t sure, swiftly installing the Rhinos as favourites once his absence was confirmed, having previously had the sides level.
Pat Richards took over at full-back, with the three-quarters reshuffled following Darrell Goulding’s return from a sickness bug.
Leeds lost 32-8 at home to Huddersfield a week ago, and had identified this heavyweight encounter as a chance to revive their best in front of their own fans.
They certainly started brightly, a piercing 35m break by Kallum Watkins - halted by Richards – signalling their intent. And in the 10th minute, their early dominance reaped rewards when a smart blindside move by Danny McGuire exposed a napping defence, and he sent Ryan Hall clear. The Leeds flyer stepped inside Richards to cross, handing Kevin Sinfield an easy shot at goal.
Wigan were far from at their clinical best with the ball, but their grit was admirable. And having powered up-field, they drew level with a well-crafted try.
Blake Green, impressive in flashes, dragged the line out of shape and dropped off Farrell, who peeled away from Watkins to charge through the opening.
Once the video referee was satisfied Mike McIlorum hadn’t knocked on in build-up, he awarded the touchdown, and stand-in kicker Matty Smith converted.
But for their occasional habit of aiming to Hall’s wing, Wigan’s kicking game astute and accurate, and Green’s 40-20 on the half-hour relieved a spell of pressure on their line.
Two plays later, Jamie Jones-Buchanan was penalised for tackling Chris Tuson high – only the second penalty in 30 minutes - and Smith struck the goal between the posts to hand them the lead for the first time.
Wigan had appeared to be growing in confidence, but indiscipline crept in, allowing Leeds an opportunity to stroll down field.
Having failed to crack the visitors’ well-marshalled line, Sinfield slid a measured grubber through for Hall, but Charnley tracked him down and held him up, preventing a try and ensuring they held a slender lead going into the break.
It didn’t last long, however. Early in the second-half, a Wigan attack broke down, Smith’s pass went to ground and later in the set, Joel Moon touched down after Charnley spilled Sinfield’s cross-field kick.
The video referee took an eternity to award the try – popes have been elected quicker – before Leeds skipper Sinfield tagged on the extras to make it 12-8 in their favour. And Wigan could have fallen further behind as the home side twice broke their opponents’ line, only to bomb both chances.
At the other end, a break from winger Iain Thornley – on a ground he used to call home, while playing for Leeds Carnegie RU –was supported by Farrell, and he charged down field only to be eventually tracked down by Watkins, and the chance fizzled out.
With both sides going close, they exchanged tries during a frantic five-minute spell either side of the hour-mark.
First Jones-Buchanan easily brushed off Green to slide over, and Sinfield’s conversion opened up a 10-point margin. But when Sinfield was penalised for incorrect play-the-ball, Wigan countered stylishly as a crisp move to the left saw Thornley squeeze in at the corner.
Smith expertly nailed the sideline conversion to again close the margin to four points.
Yet having worked their way back into the game, a lack of composure saw it slip from their grasp, O’Loughlin blotting his copybook with a wayward pass and then Jack Hughes knocking on deep in his own territory.