WIGAN held their nerve to emerge from a breathtaking heavyweight clash as victors.
A two-try blitz immediately after half-time eventually proved decisive as they kept the pressure on leaders Warrington.
Warriors were trailing 18-12 at half-time, but tries from the deadly left-side combination Pat Richards and George Carmont in a pulsating purple patch swung the game 24-18 in their favour.
Richards’ subsequent penalty swelled their advantage before the champions had to withstand an energy-sapping fightback from the visitors.
Ultimately, the result hinged on video referee Steve Ganson’s decision to wipe away Danny McGuire’s claims for a late try – which would have taken the score to 28-26 in the visitors’ favour – ruling the stand-off had dropped the ball before he hacked it over the line to touch down.
That decision was greeted by relief by the Wigan faithful, who had seen their side cough and splutter their way to their third straight victory.
Last night’s performance was neither as compelling or commanding as those which saw them defeat title rivals St Helens and Huddersfield in their last two games.
But what they lacked in class and cohesion it more than compensated for with heart and desire.
Led by the towering Sean O’Loughlin, they repelled Leeds’ late raids with a tireless defensive display and kept their composure when under fire.
The last time these two sides met at this venue, Leeds edged a frantic play-off match that ended in controversy, courtesy of Danny McGuire’s off-the-ball challenge on George Carmont – and the volley of insults Mark Riddell aimed at the stand-off as he lay injured on the floor.
Since then, Leeds have dropped a title, Wigan have one won, Sam Tomkins has quickly emerged as the target for Rhinos fans’ abuse, and the two sides have had contrasting fortunes to 2011.
While Warriors went into last night’s match with their eyes firmly fixed on top spot, Brian McDermott was feeling the heat from fans who have dined out on success in recent seasons.
His admission this week on Boots ’n’ All that he wasn’t travelling to the DW to win only irritated the Yorkshire supporters even more.
Michael Maguire made just one change to the side that beat Huddersfield 46-12, recalling Chris Tuson after a one-game ban at the expense of Gareth Hock.
Games between these two heavyweights are often close affairs – they drew 22-22 earlier this year – and in the build-up to the match, the message coming from the Warriors camp was to ignore Leeds’ recent dip in form.
By half-time that advice seemed prophetic as the visitors edged a seesawing and entertaining – if error-littered – 40 minutes to lead 18-12.
Kevin Sinfield put the visitors 2-0 ahead with a fourth minute penalty, but Wigan looked the better of the sides in the opening exchanges.
Their defence was fast and ferocious – as typified by Thomas Leuluai’s bone-rattling hit on Ben Jones-Bishop – and pressured Leeds into making mistakes.
And it was on the back of a forward pass – and subsequent penalty – which provided them the chance to score a first try.
Lee Mossop drove the ball close, and from the next play quick hands from Leuluai and Joel Tomkins allowed Josh Charnley to stroll over unopposed for his 13th try this year. Richards added the first of his five goals.
Leeds were quick to respond. Hoffman was harshly ruled to have knocked on – when it appeared he had been impeded as he attempted to play-the-ball – and from the next attack, Webb threaded a grubber kick through the home defence which Jones-Bishop pounced on. Sinfield’s boot restored the visitors’ two-point advantage.
Both sides squandered good scoring chances. Webb’s wasteful pass halted a Rhinos attack, and at the other end Hansen spilled a wonderful try-scoring opportunity.
Two uncharacteristic errors from the usually-impeccable Richards – first being beaten one-on-one by Jones-Bishop, then a knock-on – forced the home side to defend their line for a spell, which they did manfully, until the weight of possession eventually told and Webb sliced through to score. Sinfield’s goal made it 14-6.
Wigan simplified their game, cut down the mistakes, and grabbed their second try in the 34th minute as Richards leapt to collect a hanging kick and palmed the ball back into the hands of Hoffman, who spun out of a tackle to touch down.
But the seesawing nature of the opening half continued until the end, as Carl Ablett’s flick-on pass to the fabulously-named Zak Hardaker allowed the winger to soar over, giving Leeds their interval advantage.
Maguire’s half-time teamtalk appeared to have an instant impact, as Wigan stunned their opponents with a two-try salvo.
First, Hoffman won the ball from Richards’ towering kick-off and the winger finished the attack, collecting Carmont’s line-ball to slide over. Richards’ conversion drew the scores level.
And then from the next play, Carmont finished off a neat passing exchange between Brett Finch and Hoffman, who both performed strongly.
In the space of six minutes, the game had swung from 18-12 against to 24-18 in their favour – and how the home fans loved it.
They cheered every time the rushing defence stifled Leeds’ attacks, and applauded every time the tireless Andy Coley, Hoffman and Sean O’Loughlin punched holes in Rhinos’ line.
Richards’ penalty in the 62nd minute gave them some breathing space – an eight-point cushion that put them two scores ahead.
But Hardaker pounced for his second try from McGuire’s angled kick when Charnley drifted in from the wing, and Sinfield’s touchline conversion cut Warriors’ lead to a slender two points.
Leeds appeared to have the ascendancy and when McGuire crossed from his own grubber; the home fans were left stunned, until video referee Steve Ganson ruled the stand-off had dropped the ball, and the try was chalked out.
Even then the drama wasn’t over, as players celebrated the win before the final whistle was blown, and handshakes were swapped for punches in a late brawl.