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FULL TIME, PICTURES ADDED: Warrington Wolves 18 Leeds Rhinos 26
WARRINGTON Wolves are still waiting for their first Super League title after being stunned by a spirited Leeds Rhinos side at Old Trafford.
The painful wait for their first league trophy continues for the primrose and blue faithful, with Leeds using their experience and individual talent to full effect as Wolves failed to find their top gear on the biggest stage.
It looked as though Wolves were in a position to mount a second half assault on the trophy after clinging on through a ropey first half to head in 14-14 at the break.
Tries from Richie Myler, Joel Monaghan and a Brett Hodgson penalty saw the game poised at half time, but the spirit of Leeds meant that even after going down to a Ryan Atkins try they produced a fighting performance to overcome the deficit and claim their fifth Grand Final victory in six years.
If everyone was expecting a similarly tense opening as the Challenge Cup final, they were in for a surprise.
Wolves soaked the up the pressure of back-to-back sets from the reigning champions before racing up the other end and showing them how it is done.
On the last tackle Briers lifted a high kick out to the left, where the pressure of Chris Riley’s chase forced Ben Jones-Bishop to drop the ball and gift Wolves a fresh set.
Wolves took full advantage, with Richie Myler taking on the line from close range and exploiting weak tackling in front of the sticks to break through for the game’s first try after only four minutes. Brett Hodgson added the simple conversion and Wolves were 6-0 to the good.
But Wolves would have to endure a tough first half after that point, with Leeds enjoying large spells of possession to keep Smith’s men largely on the back foot.
Trent Waterhouse’s uncharacteristic handling error on 10 minutes was the opening Leeds needed to gain a foothold, with Riley fielding a kick nicely but being forced back for a goal line drop out.
Leeds used this chance to fire their first warning shot at the Warrington ranks, Ryan Hall sneaking his way over in the corner only for the play to be brought back for the most marginal of forward passes.
Kevin Sinfield then went from agony to ecstasy in the space of only a couple of minutes, as he received a blow that would make any man wince in front of his own line before romping up the field to drag his side level.
Sinfield’s high bomb was contested by Joel Monaghan and Ryan Hall and the ball bounced free for Carl Ablett to attack the Wolves line. Finding his way blocked, the England centre flicked a reverse pass back for Sinfield to beat Ratchford and plant the ball in the corner, converting his own try.
It was a couple of individual errors that then allowed Leeds to take the lead on 25 minutes.
Ryan Atkins’ errant offload gifted Leeds the ball on the half way line at the start of a promising Wolves set, and when they were then punished immediately for offside Sinfield took the opportunity to slot over the penalty for an 8-6 lead.
It was perhaps fitting that after being robbed of a try for a marginal forward pass call early on, Leeds would go on to take a 14-6 lead thanks to a much more blatant forward pass just before the half hour.
A penalty from Mike Cooper within Leeds’ half gave them the platform, and the ball was then whipped right for Ben Jones-Bishop to catch a forward Danny McGuire pass and shrug off the challenge of Riley to cross in the corner. Sinfield added the extras and Leeds were in control.
It was 40 minutes of rugby that bore similarities to the first half at Langtree Park a week ago, as Wolves were kept on the back foot for large parts of the half only to fight back at the death.
Some late Wolves pressure was rewarded when Briers’ pass was deflected by McGuire to hand Warrington a fresh set on Leeds’ line. Working the ball back out to the right, Briers spotted Joel Monaghan free out wide and his looping pass was perfect for the Aussie to score in the corner. Hodgson’s conversion reduced the gap to two points.
That gap had disappeared by the break, Hodgson slotting over a last-gasp penalty to make it 14-14 after Leeds had been judged offside next to their line.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, Warrington had reopened their lead.
Some great pressure from Myler forced Hardaker to cough up possession within Leeds’ 10-metre line, and Wolves were clinical in their execution.
It was Hodgson who made the killer pass, sending the ball up the short side from the play-the-ball, allowing Atkins to force his way over in the corner. Hodgson missed the conversion.
But like in the first half, Wolves were struggling to take control of the game and as a result, spent much of the opening 20 minutes of the half camped inside their own 30-metre line.
Persistent penalties did not help matters, and it was as a result of these constant infractions that Leeds retook the lead for the second time in the game.
Carl Ablett exploded on to Shaun Lunt’s short ball and Briers was powerless to stop him. Sinfield slotted over the extras to hand his side a slim 20-18 advantage.
Ten minutes later came the killer blow.
Unable to find the foothold they needed to attack Leeds’ line, Wolves continued to spend the majority of the time in their own half.
Leeds inevitably managed to make this pressure tell, switching the ball from right to left for Ablett to send Hall around Joel Monaghan and in at the corner. Sinfield slotted the conversion to open a 26-18 lead that Wolves were unable to turn around.
Wolves: Brett Hodgson; Joel Monaghan, Stefan Ratchford, Ryan Atkins, Chris Riley; Lee Briers, Richie Myler; Ben Harrison, Micky Higham, Chris Hill, Ben Westwood, Trent Waterhouse, Simon Grix. Subs: Michael Monaghan, Adrian Morley, Paul Wood, Mike Cooper.
Rhinos: Zak Hardaker; Ben Jones-Bishop, Kallum Watkins, Carl Ablett, Ryan Hall; Danny McGuire, Kevin Sinfield; Kylie Leuluai, Rob Burrow, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Brett Delaney, Ryan Bailey. Subs: Ian Kirke, Darrell Griffin, Stevie Ward, Shaun Lunt.