Wigan’s hopes of reaching the play-offs for a chance to defend their title took a dent in the first round of Super 8s with a defeat to Leeds.
The champions slipped to eighth in the table thanks to a 32-16 defeat, extending their winless run at Headingley to seven matches and putting them four points off the top four with six games to go.
Facing a Rhinos side featuring nine changes to the matchday 17 that lost 34-0 at Wigan two weeks ago, this was always going to be a different test for the Warriors.
Needing a win to keep themselves within arm’s reach of a play-off spot, Warriors were in one sense bolstered by the return of Liam Farrell from a knee injury but were short of Joel Tomkins (groin) and Sam Powell (ban) for their Super 8s opener.
Young hooker Josh Ganson took his place on the bench in place of Powell and was assured and authoritative on his introduction to the action half an hour in for a stint either side of half-time.
Like in their Challenge Cup semi-final success last week, Warriors started brightly and pressed the Rhinos towards their own line on a few occasions before they broke through after nine minutes.
A well-rehearsed move saw a slick pass from George Williams send Farrell over from distance on his return, only for referee Ben Thaler to call on the video referee for clarification.
Despite Thaler’s on-field decision of ‘try’, video referee James Child found cause to disallow it on account of an obstruction from Frank-Paul Nuuausala, whose part in the play appeared only to act as a decoy.
This split opinion on social media as much as it did in the stands, though the decision calls into question whether teams should bother with dummy runners.
But iffy calls happen and life goes on, though the admittedly small band of travelling Wigan fans would have thought the tide had turned against their side when Leeds got off the mark nine minutes later.
The Rhinos were handed prime position when Warriors skipper Sean O’Loughlin knocked-on in front of his own line, and Wigan’s cause wasn’t helped with Sam Tomkins conceding a penalty for holding down Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
From here, Stevie Ward made barging over the line look easy (Farrell and Tomkins’ attempted tackles were a bit cold morning PE lesson, making Ward’s job easier).
The champions’ cause was made worse with Leeds’ second try with a quarter of the game gone. Kallum Watkins’ slick pass allowed Ashton Golding to dive over, under a Tomkins tackle attempt, before Watkins’ goal put Leeds 10-0 up and ready to hit cruise control.
But step-up Tom Davies.
The 20-year-old snuck over for Wigan’s first after 25 minutes thanks to a slick move involving Tommy Leuluai and Tomkins before he helped his side draw level on the half hour.
With Leeds on the attack, a Joel Moon pass hit the deck and was scooped up by Leuluai. He handed over to Davies who redlined the rev counter to gallop 90 metres over the line.
Thaler handed over to the screen again, this time to check a toe hadn’t crept over the South Stand touchline. Child was satisfied Davies should be allowed his 12th Super League try of the season, though it should be noted how by this point the reliance on the video referee was having the effect of an unwanted guest at a good party.
Williams goaled to lock the scores in time for the break, but there was still plenty of time for a scuffle when Taulima Tautai booked a date with the RFL disciplinary by deciding to hit Matt Parcell in the head with the ball.
Golding thought he had restored his side’s advantage in the last minute of the half, but this time the video referee was asked to look at a more textbook case of obstruction, this time from Jones-Buchanan, and the score was duly wiped.
The struggle for authority in the closing stages of the first half swung the home side’s way after the break.
Within three minutes of the restart the Rhinos pulled off a carbon copy of Michael McIlorum’s vital semi-final try for Wigan against Salford last week.
Ryan Hall and Golding combined in a move that would have been hard even for Warriors fans not to applaud.
Hall kicked through on the run for Golding to win the race to the ball, but again the reliance on the video referee reared its ugly head, and from the stands and without the benefit of hearing the mic-ed up Thaler, it was hard to guess what for.
After the try was green-lighted, Watkins fluffed the relatively straightforward conversion, but all that did was keep the tension at a level which needed whisky over a cup of tea to bring under control.
Unfortunately, when the tension did break with 25 minutes to go, it was because Leeds had started to pull away by re-establishing their 10-point lead.
Liam Sutcliffe was able make a damaging break thanks to a missed tackle from Ryan Sutton, and despite a scrambling Warriors defence, Parcell was able to crash over on the next play.
Watkins was on target with the boot this time, giving Wigan the last quarter to find two converted tries.
But it was the Rhinos who found the line instead, with the unstoppable Ward topping up his tally by two to claim a hat-trick and and bring Wigan promptly down from their Challenge Cup high of a week ago.
With five minutes to go, Tomkins made-up for earlier errors in the second half with a fine solo try, but the lack of celebration showed this wasn’t even a consolation for the beaten Warriors.
Leeds Rhinos: Ashton Golding; Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins, Liam Sutcliffe, Ryan Hall; Joel Moon, Danny McGuire; Adam Cuthbertson, Matt Parcell, Brad Singleton, Stevie Ward, Carl Ablett; Jamie Jones-Buchanan
Subs: Anthony Mullally, Jimmy Keinhorst, Jordan Lilley, Brett Delaney
Wigan Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Tom Davies, Anthony Gelling, Oliver Gildart, Joe Burgess; George Williams, Thomas Leuluai; Fran-Paul Nuuausala, Michael McIlorum, Ryan Sutton, John Bateman, Liam Farrell; Sean O’Loughlin
Subs: Tony Clubb, Taulima Tautai, Willie Isa, Josh Ganson
Referee: Ben Thaler
Star man: Tom Davies
Tries: Ward 3, Golding 2, Parcell
Goals: Watkins 4
Tries: Davies 2, Tomkins
Goals Williams 2