WIGAN suffered Grand Final heartache for the second successive year.
Shaun Wane’s Warriors had battled back to take a 20-16 lead during the second-half, only for Josh Walters’ converted try in the 63rd minute to settle an evenly-matched, entirely engrossing contest.
The match - watched by a capacity 73,000-plus crowd at Old Trafford - was tense and thrilling, though that will provide little comfort for the Warriors.
Their desire was unquestioned, Liam Farrell and Sean O’Loughlin worked tirelessly, and Matty Bowen signed off his career with a typically dazzling try.
But their inability to find a match-winning try in the final quarter - and their failure to capitalise on earlier chances - ultimately proved their undoing. Drained of energy, they couldn’t break down a resolute defence.
Given the closeness of the final scoreline, many will point to a controversial first-half try as being decisive.
Harry Sunderland Trophy winner Danny McGuire appeared to knock-on in the build-up to Joel Moon’s touchdown, but the video referees gave the score the green-light - much to the shock of many fans.
And so Bowen and Joe Burgess depart without the dream ending they craved - that honour belonged to Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai.
With only points difference splitting them on the league table after 30 rounds, many predicted one of the closest deciders in years - and that certainly proved to be the case.
Wane kept faith with his semi-final winning team, while Leeds had Adam Cuthbertson - shortlisted for the Man of Steel - on the bench.
The atmosphere crackled as the players ran out to warm-up, and - after a pre-game bill featuring The Charlatans and then Jerusalem - the noise dialled up once the game exploded into life.
Fierce drives and tackles from both sides suggested a low-scoring start, but they exchanged tries within the opening seven minutes.
First, the excellent Farrell broke through and showing great composure to send Burgess sliding over.
NRL-bound Burgess, who scored in last year’s decider, leapt to his feet and celebrated in front of the Leeds fans before Bowen added his first of four successful kicks.
But Matty Smith’s knock-on from the restart handed Leeds possession, and Sinfield’s stab-through was pounced on by McGuire to lock the scores 6-6.
Ben Flower - appearing at the ground where he entered sporting infamy a year earlier - forced an error from Mitch Garbutt with a bone-jarring collision. Dom Crosby also ran the ball back strongly, but a nervy passage saw both sides make errors.
Wigan, forced to defend three repeat sets on their line, tackled doggedly - until a major flashpoint.
McGuire appeared to knock-on under a heavy tackle, in the build-up to Moon’s try. Ben Thaler referred the decision to video referees Phil Bentham and Richard Silverwood, who watched several replays before awarding the try.
The Warriors rallied, pushing for a try which would level before the break. But while they worked their way into strong position they didn’t pose enough questions of the Rhinos defence.
And that came back to bite them as Leeds added a third try before the break.
Kallum Watkins’ overlapping run down the right created the space for McGuire to slide over - with Liam Farrell piggybacked on his back. Sinfield’s conversion made it 16-6 at the break.
But in a whirlwind start to the second-half Wigan battled back to take an 18-16 lead.
First, O’Loughlin’s floated a kick to the right corner, and Dom Manfredi ripped the ball from Ryan Hall’s grasp and crashed over. Bowen’s conversion cut Leeds’ advantage to just four points.
And then - after Tom Briscoe spilled an attempted intercept - Bowen crowned his farewell appearance with a moment of magic, beating four defenders and carrying a fifth over the line for a try he converted - to a soundtrack of chants and cheers from the joyous Warriors faithful.
It prompted memories of Wigan’s stunning fightback against Warrington on the same stage two years earlier.
Replacement Larne Patrick - in his final match before returning to Huddersfield - spilled over the line.
And after McIlorum won a penalty on the hour-mark, Bowen slotted a goal which put Wigan 20-16 ahead.
The lead, however, didn’t last long.
Manfredi was unable to deal with McGuire’s kick, and the ball was fed inside for Walters to touch down. Sinfield’s conversion put the Rhinos 22-20 ahead.
A streaker held up play, and when play resumed Wigan’s attempts to claw back in control only brought errors - a poor Smith kick, a Manfredi penalty, a Tomkins penalty, a Clubb spill.
Exhausted, they scrambled to the death, before the full-time siren condemned them to another Old Trafford defeat.
Leeds: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Peacock, Burrow, Garbutt, Ablett, Delaney, Cuthbertson. Subs: Leuluai, Singleton, Keinhorst, Lilley.
Wigan: Bowen; Manfredi, Bateman, Gildart, Burgess; Williams, Smith; Flower, McIlorum, Crosby, Farrell, J Tomkins, O’Loughlin. Subs: Clubb, Mossop, Patrick, Powell.
Referee: Ben Thaler