New recruit Frank-Paul Nuuausala made his debut, but was unable to prevent his new team slipping to their first defeat in more than two months.
Late tries by Jack Higginson and the excellent George Williams reeled in Leeds’ advantage from 18-4 to 18-16, but the home side managed to hang on to the win.
The quality was low at times but it was a pulsating, end-to-end match in the spirit of past epic encounters between these two heavyweights.
And given the number of Wigan’s absences this loss will do little to dent their morale as they prepare for next week’s derby against St Helens.
The Rhinos may be destined for the Qualifiers but they have beaten the top-two in their last two games, and this lively performance underlined their resurgent form.
Wigan needed to win to reclaim top spot, following Hull FC’s 3-12 derby win against Hull KR the night before.
And having won their last eight matches they certainly travelled over to Headingley with confidence high - even if the number of available players was low.
The pre-game excitement about Nuuausala’s debut was tapered by the absence of Sam Tomkins to an ankle problem - one of nine frontline players missing.
Little surprise the bookmakers couldn’t pick a favourite despite their polar positions on the Super League table.
Leeds, to their immense credit, put on a terrific bill of pre-match entertainment including singers, dancers and parachutists to mark Armed Forces Days, which only served to ramp up the excitement.
Both sides scored a try each during the first-half as Leeds took a 6-4 lead into the break. The opening half’s action was more end-to-end than that scoreline suggests - and less intense - with both teams guilty of being wasteful in possession.
The trend was set early on when Dom Manfredi was unleashed from inside his own half, but his chip inside was too powerful for the supporting runners.
Leeds broke the deadlock in the 10th minute.
Ryan Sutton lost possession under a heavy tackle, and from the resulting set, Kallum Watkins - their two-try hero at Hull FC a week ago - surged over on a powerful run, beating five defenders far too easily on his way to the line. Liam Sutcliffe converted.
Wigan upped the tempo and responded moments later, Williams - typically probing and threatening - poking a kick through for the all-action Josh Charnley to collect and score. Matty Smith was unable to add the extras from the sidelines.
Though there was no further score before half-time there was plenty of activity - and some controversy.
Manfredi dealt with a raid of kicks to his wing and, on the other flank, Charnley cut down Mitch Achurch after imposing No.9 James Segeyaro had caused the damage.
Wigan enjoyed plenty of good position but didn’t have the cohesiveness to trouble Leeds when they went to pull the trigger.
Nuuausala, lacking match-fitness, came off the bench for a low-key Super League debut as another of their ex-NRL props, Taulima Tautai, enraged the home crowd by tackling Adam Cuthbertson around the knees. The challenge, as third man in, was allowed to pass by referee Robert Hicks but the RFL’s match review panel will no doubt study footage on Monday.
A break by Williams in the 37th minute deserved a try, but Leeds scrambled to preserve their narrow advantage before they extended their lead to 12-4 in the 46th minute, Cuthbertson crossing after Carl Ablett was allowed to offload under a soft tackle by Willie Isa.
Wigan’s performance was gradually falling flat, but a scorching break by Tierney and two midfield bursts by Charnley prevented Leeds from tightening their grip, without producing any further scores for the visitors.
Joe Bretherton, who debuted earlier this year, forced an error from Tom Briscoe and later in the set Charnley crossed, only to be penalised by video referee Joseph Cobb for a double movement.
He was penalised again soon after when another attack broke down - he may find himself in hot water for making contact with Hicks as he protested his decision - and as those chances slipped away, there was a growing feeling the match was going that way, too.
Leeds, piggybacked by a penalty, strolled down field and after a break in play while Jordan Lilley was treated - following a clumsy collision with Willie Isa - they struck for a third try in the 65th minute.
Burrow’s high kick was palmed back by Joel Moon, and Ferres was on hand to collect and touch down. Sutcliffe maintained his 100 per cent strike-rate with the boot.
At 18-4 it appeared game over, but Wigan have made a habit of spirited, strong finishes this season, and two tries in four minutes offered them hope of another Houdini trick.
First, Higginson - making his third appearance at this level - crossed from Charnley’s bouncing pass, to cries of “forward” from the home fans.
And then in the next set, Williams ghosted through for a 72nd minute touchdown. His running game has really improved in recent weeks, and he didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
With Smith kicking both conversions, it cut Leeds’ lead to 18-16. But as they threw caution to the wind in search of a final score, Tautai’s spill ended their hopes.
Leeds: Sutcliffe; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Lilley, Burrow; Galloway, Segeyaro, Singleton, Achurch, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Subs: Cuthbertson, Delaney, Keinhorst, Ferres.
Wigan: Tierney; Charnley, Gildart, Sarginson, Manfredi; Williams, Smith; Bretherton, Powell, Flower, Sutton, Isa, Mossop. Subs: Tautai, Nuuausala, Shorrocks, Higginson.
Referee: Robert Hicks
Starman: George Williams