Leigh heap pressure on Warrington after Gareth Hock leads the way

Aaron Bower at Leigh Sports Village
Warrington’s defence have their hands full coping with Leigh’s Jamie Acton in the Super League match at Leigh Sports Village. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

The pressure continues to intensify on Warrington. It is perhaps a stretch to call a run of five defeats a crisis given how we are still in March, but it is clear that last year’s Grand Finalists are finding themselves increasingly in a battle at the wrong end of the table.

Tipped by many to make it all the way to Old Trafford again this season, Tony Smith’s side look shorn of confidence in these opening weeks of 2017, despite comprehensively beating Brisbane in the World Club Series.

This is their worst start to a season since 2009, when Smith replaced James Lowes in the middle of an equally unimpressive run of five straight defeats. It is highly improbable that Smith will lose his job as Lowes did then, but it is also difficult to see where Warrington’s first points of the season will come from.

“They out-enthused us; we’re a disappointed dressing room right now,” Smith said afterwards. “We trained so well this week and it looked like this would be the start of the progression for us – so to go and perform like that, of course you’re going to disappointed.”

That said, Leigh were magnificent all evening, and with three wins to their name from their opening six games, they have bizarrely already ensured this is their most successful Super League season ever, following promotion from the Championship last season. Recent form certainly suggests they belong among the game’s elite.

Leigh were handed a daunting start on the fixture list, with games against heavyweights such as Warrington, Wigan, St Helens and Leeds inside the opening month. A six-point return is by no means a perfect start, but is encouraging enough to suggest that the Centurions can avoid the scramble of the Qualifiers and make the top eight in their first season back in Super League.

“That fixture list didn’t concern me,” their coach, Neil Jukes, said. “We had to play them all at some point and after we were thumped at Castleford – which doesn’t look a bad result now – I said we’d have to sink or swim. We’re swimming.”

The Centurions’ endeavour and energy all night was typified by Gareth Hock – and at times it was easy to think we were back in 2008, when Hock was at his destructive best for both Wigan and Great Britain. He has stepped away from the limelight in recent years, dropping down from Super League to help Leigh’s crusade towards promotion last year – but this was the kind of performance which suggests that, despite being 33, he is still capable of producing at the top level.

“He was brilliant,” Jukes said of his prop. “He’s got a bit of a tag about him but he’s a loveable rogue really; there were current internationals out there tonight and he was head and shoulders above them. He can really play.”

Hock’s impact in the opening quarter was outstanding, and he broke the deadlock with a robust finish from close range to make it 6-0, the lead extended to 10-0 when Ben Crooks jumped on an error from the Warrington half-back, Kurt Gidley.

The two sides exchanged penalties in the minutes approaching half-time as Leigh preserved their 10-point lead, and given the balance of play it always felt as if it would be enough. Both teams were reduced to 12 men for periods after Glenn Stewart and Tom Lineham were shown yellow cards, but it was Leigh who capitalised, with Adam Higson touching down to all but secure victory.

By the time Lineham had scored a late consolation, Hock had rubber-stamped another impressive evening for Leigh. At the start of the season it was they who were expected to be in a race to avoid the bottom four – on this form, perhaps it is Warrington destined for that fate.

Leigh Hampshire; Higson, Crooks, Brown, Dawson; Reynolds, Drinkwater; Hock, Higham, Acton, Vea, Stewart, Hansen. Interchange Pelissier, Tickle, Hopkins, Burr. Tries Hock 2, Crooks, Higson. Goals Reynolds 2. Sin-bin Stewart (47).

Warrington Johnson; Russell, Evans, Atkins, Lineham; Brown, Gidley; Hill, Clark, Cooper, Hughes, Westwood, Westerman. Interchange Sims, Dwyer, Savelio, Livett. Tries Hughes, Lineham. Goals Livett. Sin-bin Lineham (55).

Referee B Thaler. Attendance 7,011

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