IF Wigan’s final match at Headingley last year was one to remember, then last night’s game was one that fans will find hard to forget.
The Warriors trailed 22-4 at the hour-mark and looked to be heading for their first back-to-back losses under Michael Maguire’s watch.
But they rallied magnificently to grab tries from Darrell Goulding, Sam Tomkins and Paul Prescott in a dramatic ending, following Joel Tomkins’ first-half opener.
They out-scored Leeds four tries to three but still trailed 22-20, and it appeared like the lack of a specialist goal-kicker was going to prove costly for Wigan.
But in the dying seconds, they earned a penalty – and fourth-choice kicker Sam Tomkins kept his cool to slot over the vital goal, netting his side their second draw of the campaign.
It marked a satisfying end to a pulsating match in which Wigan were out-played for nearly an hour. Yet while they were far from at their best, their spirit and fighting qualities were exemplary.
After last weekend’s disappointing outing against Warrington, Maguire made several personnel and positional changes.
Joel Tomkins and Liam Farrell – available again following suspension and injury respectively – came into the squad for Stefan Marsh and Josh Charnley. Tomkins played at right centre, a ploy to try and shackle evergreen veteran Keith Senior, while Amos Roberts started on the wing.
Brett Finch – who debuted last week – was dropped to the bench with Sean O’Loughlin starting at stand-off, and Farrell locking the pack.
Leeds had made a stuttering start to the season, losing three of their opening seven matches, and were missing five frontline stars – Brett Delaney, Ali Lauitiiti, Danny McGuire, Jamie Peacock and Lee Smith – last night.
But their squad still boasted highly-rated internationals such as Brent Webb, Keith Senior, Kevin Sinfield and Danny Buderus, while their wingers Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall were the leading frontrunners in the Super League top tryscorer charts.
Headingley has been a relatively happy hunting ground for the Warriors in recent seasons, having won four of their last five Super League games at the famous ground.
But they could not have got off to a worse start, as Thomas Leuluai spilled the ball from the kick-off to put the visitors under immediate pressure.
Fortunately, a spill by Buderus at the play-the-ball let them off the hook, and back-to-back penalties piggybacked them downfield into a golden position.
Wigan, though, looked jittery and unorganised, with all their best opportunities coming from the dangerous running of Leuluai.
And when Ryan Bailey was penalised for choking Liam Farrell on the ground, the elusive Kiwi engineered the opening try in the 11th minute. His weaving run wreaked havoc in Leeds’ defence, and Joel Tomkins was on hand to collect his basketball pass and ground the ball in the corner. Brother Sam – handed the goal-kicking duties with Charnley out the side – couldn’t convert.
Both sides were guilty of giving away too much possession and too many penalties, making for an entertaining if frustrating spectacle.
Wigan’s carelessness with the ball prevented them from building any pressure, while their defence was unusually disorganised – particularly on the edges, where they were frequently found wanting.
George Carmont’s daring offload was intercepted by Sinfield, allowing Leeds to draw level through Jamie Jones-Buchanan when he charged on to a short pass. Sinfield’s goal put the home side 6-4 ahead, and within a minute they had powered ahead with a second try.
Hall broke on the blindside and angled a kick in-field for Buderus, who showed off his football dribbling skills before diving on the ball, Sinfield’s conversion making it 12-4.
Wigan were looking fragile, and when Senior broke from deep from the next kick-off, the Warriors would have conceded their third try in rapid succession, had a pass to Kallum Watkins not been ruled forward.
Finch came on for McIlorum in the 26th minute, but it did little to change the flow of the game, with his side again breathing a sigh of relief when the video referee ruled out a Sinfield try from his own kick, ruling Jones-Buchanan had been in an offside position.
In truth, Leeds could have bagged at least two other tries before the break, such was their dominance, and Wigan must have felt somewhat relieved to only be trailing by eight points at the interval.
If Maguire called for composure at half-time, it had the opposite effect; within 10 minutes they had conceded two penalties in front of the sticks and been reduced to 12 men.
Sinfield’s two goals – for infringements by Leuluai and Chris Tuson – sandwiched a flare-up when Jeff Lima was sin-binned for attacking the knees of Chris Clarkson, who had been held up in the tackle.
A superb one-on-one tackle by Carmont denied Weller Hauraki, but their attack continued to cough and splutter and Finch’s combinations with his team-mates have yet to click.
Every indication suggested it was not going to be Wigan’s night, and there was a sense of inevitability to Leeds’ next try – scored by Brent Webb – after Sam Tomkins had spilled Sinfield’s kick.
But then something incredible happened.
Just when it appeared like Wigan’s impeccable away winning run was going to come to a shuddering halt, they finally found their groove. Playing with energy and gusto, they attacked Leeds with confidence and much-welcomed cohesion to score 18 late points.
Tomkins started the ball rolling with a neat try from Liam Farrell’s break, which he converted.
And they closed the gap even further in the 73rd minute when Goulding crossed from a trademark O’Loughlin pass to make it 22-14.
Even then it appeared like it was going to be too much to ask, but fans’ hopes were raised when Paul Prescott crashed over from close range, Tomkins’ goal narrowing the margin to 22-20, before the No.1 struck the decisive late penalty to salvage a somewhat surreal draw.