The message from the Leeds chief executive, Gary Hetherington, four weeks ago could not have been clearer. “This month is an important one and at its end we will be in a much better position to make an accurate judgment on the performance of all our players, coaching staff and senior management, including myself,” he said in the wake of the club’s 66-10 defeat by Castleford.
It was subtle in some ways but Hetherington’s meaning was obvious: jobs were on the line at Headingley. Debate will rage about whether Hetherington was laying down an ultimatum but it matters little and now it is Leeds who are keeping touch with the Tigers following that dark night a month ago.
Four games, four wins, joint-top of Super League: as responses go, that is as good as it gets. There will probably be more to come from Leeds but Friday night’s morale-boosting victory against a Wigan side shorn of many front-line players rounded off the kind of month Leeds did not seem capable of four weeks ago.
Brian McDermott claimed amid much conjecture after the first of those four wins that Leeds could still win the Grand Final – perhaps a few more may agree with him now. “I maintained that throughout and I still do,” he said. “We didn’t see it as four weeks to save jobs or avoid the sack. We just made our job of winning the final that bit harder against Castleford.”
It is now one point from six for Wigan, who will finish the weekend outside the top four for the first time this year – although there is plenty of mitigation for them. They were without over a dozen senior players here and will improve as the season goes on but Shaun Wane, typically, would not use that as an excuse.
“I’m depressed,” he bemoaned. “I thought we could have won it but we were just dumb. They’re a fantastic side, though, and the best team on the day won. I’ve got loads of young kids giving everything but at this level, effort is not enough.”
Wigan actually led thanks to a dazzling George Williams try – the half-back believed to be interesting many NRL sides – but by half-time equally superb play from Leeds had turned the game on its head. Tries from Ryan Hall and Joel Moon, both of superb quality, made it 14-12 at the break after Williams’s second and from there Leeds never fell behind again.
Wigan’s woes were compounded further when Oliver Gildart suffered a neck injury following an apparent crusher tackle from Brett Ferres for which he was sin-binned – an incident Wane said he would “leave to the RFL” to determine the severity of. Leeds survived that 10-minute period without Ferres unscathed after Wigan were denied a try by the video referee and the Yorkshire side edged further ahead via a penalty from Ashton Golding shortly before crisp passing from Matt Parcell and Danny McGuire sent Kallum Watkins searing away for a try in the corner on his 200th Leeds appearance.
Liam Marshall epitomised Wigan’s never-say-die attitude with an opportunistic try, seizing a loose pass and racing clear to set up a thrilling finish but ultimately Leeds had enough to hold on, securing victory courtesy of a Carl Ablett try three minutes from the end.
Leeds Golding; Briscoe, Watkins, Keinhorst, Hall; McGuire, Moon; Cuthbertson, Parcell, Garbutt, Ferres, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Interchange Sutcliffe, Burrow, Mullally, Delaney.
Tries Hall, Moon, Watkins, Ablett Goals Golding 5.
Wigan Escaré; Davies, Forsyth, Gildart, Marshall; Williams, Leuluai; Flower, Powell, Nuuausala, Tomkins, Isa, Clubb. Interchange Tautai, Sutton, Gregson, Navarrete.
Tries Williams 2, Marshall Goals Escaré 3. Referee B Thaler.
Elsewhere Luke Gale brought up a century of tries with a second-half hat-trick as Castleford strengthened their grip on top spot with a 52-16 demolition of struggling Huddersfield.
The England half-back continued his fine form with a 24-point haul on his 250th career appearance. Joel Monaghan also helped himself to a treble while Ben Roberts, Jake Webster, Mike McMeeken and Adam Milner all crossed to inflict more misery on the Giants. Huddersfield had taken an early lead at the Jungle through Ryan Hinchcliffe but they could only respond through tries from Ryan Brierley and Lee Gaskell as Castleford racked up 36 points after the break.