FOR the second year in a row Warrington Wolves’ Challenge Cup dream has ended at the semi-finals stage.
Wolves, victors over Leeds in the 2010 and 2012 finals at Wembley, gave themselves too much to do in the second period after making life very difficult for themselves from the start.
Trailing 14-0 at half time, Tony Smith’s side were tremendous in getting back to within eight points twice and had Leeds pinned on the back foot for long periods.
But there was always a risk of needing to take chances and falling foul to a sucker punch.
It was England winger Tom Briscoe’s breakaway effort from Simon Grix’s dropped ball that eventually proved crucial.
Nervy Wolves took a real pummelling in the hot sun in the opening 15 minutes at Langtree Park, most of which was spent in their own half.
A crazy first kick return from Matty Russell, in which he ran straight into Ben Harrison and caused an obstruction, allowed Kevin Sinfield to boot Leeds into a 2-0 lead from 12 metres after two minutes.
Stefan Ratchford then kicked the ball straight over the dead-ball line from the restart to put his team under pressure, the Wolves stand off then scooping up a grabber at the end of the set as Leeds forced a drop-out.
Leeds earned another drop-out from Danny McGuire’s short kick cleaned up by Joel Monaghan as the Yorkshiremen dominated the early possession.
Chris Bridge, Anthony England and Ben Westwood held Carl Ablett up over the try line as Wolves’ defence held strong but they could not get out of their half, for at the end of the next set Ratchford’s clearance kick ricocheted around and led to England finding himself offside.
And a high tackle from Ratchford on Joel Moon 15 metres from his own line made it 4-0 in penalties to Leeds as they ramped up the bombardment on Wolves’ line.
Again, Tony Smith’s side resisted and a gutsy life-saving tackle by Ben Harrison, Russell and Ratchford prevented Jamie Jones-Buchanan touching down and knocking on in the process.
On brief excursions into Leeds territory a Ratchford bomb was taken easily over his own line by Zak Hardaker and a chance offload from Richie Myler ended up in Ablett’s hands.
It took a 60-metre touch finder from Michael Monaghan to finally look as though Wolves could settle down.
But the next time Wolves got into Leeds’ half the last play ended with Joel Monaghan kicking high but straight into touch.
Simon Grix’s first touch off the bench resulted in a knock-on around Wolves’ 40-metre line as the error count continued to rise alarmingly.
All the pressure finally paid off in the 30th minute as video referee Ben Thaler awarded Ryan Hall a try with benefit of the doubt, squeezing in at the corner flag under the challenge of Joel Monaghan off Moon’s pass.
There was a question mark if Hall lost possession in the act of scoring but video replays were unclear and when Sinfield booted over the extras from the touchline Leeds held an 8-0 advantage.
At this stage, Wolves had still not threatened Leeds’ line and a promising half break from Russell broke down with his skilful offload to Myler ruled forward by referee Phil Bentham.
A few minutes later, on the next visit to Leeds’ 20-metre line, Myler’s flat pass to Roy Asotasi was judged to be forward and another error cost Wolves an attacking opportunity.
Wolves’ first great chance to score came to nothing when Kallum Watkins got back to intercept Asotasi’s long pass to Ryan Atkins in broken play after Hardaker lost a hick kick in the sun and Michael Monaghan had pounced to initially keep the ball alive.
Then, Leeds struck again after Hardaker broke through Paul Wood and Asotasi on a kick return.
With Wolves scrambling, McGuire’s long pass from first receiver - that was actually forward - sent England winger Hall over for his second try and Sinfield’s touchline conversion pushed them 14-0 ahead after 40 minutes.
The nearest Wolves came to scoring was with the final play of the half after a penalty awarded for interference by Moon.
With the clock ticking down Russell found himself in space on an angled run to the line but Brett Delaney clawed him to the floor and the hooter sounded.
The second half was all about Warrington gaining a fairer share of possession and territory and seeing if they could rack up points on the back of it.
They blew a scoring opportunity two minutes into the second stanza, with Rhys Evans breaking away in a four-on-one opportunity. As Atkins received the inside pass the cover defence closed in and when Ablett hauled him down the Wolves centre blindly offloaded into the hands of Sinfield.
Two minutes later Wolves did get themselves back in the game, with a Myler cross-field kick being taken in the air by Joel Monaghan and his pass allowed Bridge to walk over unopposed.
Bridge’s conversion attempt bounced wide off the post but Wolves at last had points on the board at 14-4.
Leeds were starting to look lethargic as Wolves increased the physicality in defence.
And then another hanging kick from Myler towards Joel Monaghan caused Hall to spill under pressure and a scrum created an attacking set that fell down with a blocked Myler grubber.
The counter attack from Watkins paved the way for a further break from Rob Burrow and then swift movement to the left allowed McGuire to put Moon through a huge gap and score a punishing try that went unconverted, making it 18-4 after 54 minutes.
Ratchford’s re-start found the dead-ball line with a bounce to give Wolves an attacking platform.
A high tackle on Trent Waterhouse maintained the raid and Chris Hill, sporting a badly bruised right eye and cheek, was deemed to have lost the ball over the line in a four-man tackle as the opportunity went begging.
But Wolves, with Bridge switched to stand off and Ratchford operating in the centres, were not going to give up.
And, with the help of several repeat sets from Leeds ricochets, Ratchford got over from a wonder Westwood offload, following a determined driving run from Atkins. Bridge’s extras cut the gap to eight points with 63 minutes played.
The game looked to be over 10 minutes later when a pass from Myler was not taken in by Grix and Briscoe pounced.
He had 60 metres of open space in front of him and although Rhys Evans got to him the fend was strong and the England winger was able to canter the final 20 metres.
Sinfield’s goal extended the Leeds lead back to 14 points with 11 minutes, including injury time, remaining.
Although Wolves did finish the game strongly, they were racing the clock.
Three minutes into injury time a bizarre Westwood try from England’s offload knocked backwards 10 metres by Leeds kept the contest alive, with Bridge’s extras making it 24-16.
But time ran out and Wolves were left to rue one of their poorest half's of rugby in semi-final football in the Smith era.
Wolves: Matty Russell; Joel Monaghan, Chris Bridge, Ryan Atkins, Rhys Evans; Stefan Ratchford, Richie Myler; Chris Hill, Michael Monaghan, Anthony England, Ben Westwood, Trent Waterhouse, Ben Harrison. Subs: Micky Higham, Roy Asotasi, Paul Wood, Simon Grix.
Leeds: Zak Hardaker; Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins, Joel Moon, Ryan Hall; Danny McGuire, Kevin Sinfield; Kylie Leuluai, Rob Burrow, Jamie Peacock, Carl Ablett, Brett Delaney, Jamie Jones-Buchanan. Subs: Pail Aiton, Ryan Bailey, Ian Kirke, Liam Sutcliffe.
Referee: Phil Bentham