George Williams was unable to end the long wait for an elusive Wigan win at Leeds, despite putting on a stunning show.
The England No.6, subject of NRL speculation and in talks to extend his Warriors deal, scored two tries and marshalled his side’s attack, but they were kept just out of reach by their hosts for most of the night in a 26-18 loss.
Without a win since beating Warrington on March 9, Shaun Wane’s men missed the chance to climb to second in the table, at least until Hull FC meet the Wolves on Saturday.
They were in search of their first success at Headingley since a 50-8 hammering of Leeds in June 2012, and welcomed back centre Oliver Gildart from a four-week absence with a shoulder injury.
Prop Ryan Sutton was also back in the fold after recovering from an eye injury, coming off the bench for his first appearance since the win over Leigh on March 3.
Wigan were still without a host of first choice stars, and notably were missing Anthony Gelling, who was named in Shaun Wane’s initial 19-man squad despite picking up a knock in last week’s defeat to Hull FC.
After the opening exchanges Rhinos surprisingly opted for two points when they took the lead in the seventh minute with a penalty from Ashton Golding. They had enjoyed the upper hand as the game was still waking up and looked to be in good position to strike thanks to a kick into touch on the full by Williams.
When Thomas Leuluai intercepted Adam Cuthbertson’s offload 10 metres from his own line in the resulting set, the Wigan fans behind him could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief. But Ben Thaler’s whistle shattered the calm, and the punishment for offside was two points from Golding’s boot.
But Wigan, clad in their purple chequer-patterned alternative kit, managed to push against the tide thanks to Williams, whose skills were for the most part, as is becoming expected of him, a pleasure to watch.
The 22-year-old almost helped his side in front when he floated a delicate kick into the corner which troubled the Rhinos’ scrambling defence and only just beat Warriors winger Liam Marshall to touch in goal.
But Williams has learned a lot of tricks in his four years in the first team, and used amazing footwork to turn Carl Ablett and Matt Parcell inside-out in the 12th minute and score his fourth try of the season.
While less potent than the threat from Williams, half-back Leuluai, a try-scorer in Wigan’s last win at Leeds almost five years ago, managed to force a drop-out with a neat kick and pen Ryan Hall back on his own line with another, and it looked as though the World Club champions had managed to get their opponents under control.
Leeds, looking for their fourth straight win, had other ideas though, and de-clutched Wigan’s momentum with a quarter of the game gone when Kallum Watkins broke from deep in his own half, handing over to Hall to finish the move in time with the rising decibel level on three sides of Headingley.
A second strike from Moon just three minutes later might have had some fans fearing another onslaught similar to the one Hull FC inflicted in a nine-minute spell a week ago - and Golding’s third goal of the night to make it 14-6 gave their lead a two-score cushion.
Wigan’s plight looked to worsen when, after forcing a knock-on from the kick off, promptly lost the scrum, but no further damage was done as a result.
Instead, Williams struck just after the half hour in a near enough carbon copy of his first score, twirling past four defenders as if in a game of touch rugby.
Morgan Escare landed the conversion, despite the difficult angle, to squeeze the gap to two points.
There was still a Newton’s Cradle effect on the game though, with Leeds bouncing back from the ropes to once again set their artillery within striking distance. It took a frankly unbelievable tackle from Escare to keep the ball away from the ground and prevent a try by the charging Cuthbertson.
Later in the set video referee Phil Bentham overturned Ben Thaler’s on-field decision to deny Watkins a try on his 200th appearance for Leeds - thanks to Tom Briscoe obstructing Marshall in the build-up.
During the deliberation, a disagreement between Willie Isa and Golding erupted into a brawl in the background, and the resulting tension saw Brett Ferres sent to the sin bin with a minute left to the break for a crusher tackle on Gildart.
Warriors failed to make use of their one-man advantage though, and Golding added another two points nine minutes into the second half when Liam Forsyth was judged to not be standing square at the play the ball.
Following Ferres’ return, Nick Gregson spotted a chance from dummy half, and took a route to the tryline blocked by Golding for what could have been his first try for the club. Thaler consulted with the video referee, who for the second time in the evening overruled the on field call, much to the relief of the Leeds fans calling for a double movement.
A minute later Watkins marked his landmark game with a try. Scorching along two thirds of the length of the pitch, Marshall’s tackle attempt wasn’t good enough to stop that two-score gap reappearing.
But fans are used to scolding themselves for writing Wigan off in such situations, and with 13 minutes to go, Marshall picked off a ball left carelessly neglected by Briscoe to race away and score. Escare’s goal reeled the Rhinos back to within two.
It wasn’t enough though, and Ablett crashed over with three minutes to go to seal the win and ensure Wigan fans would be hearing ‘Marching on Together’ in their sleep.