Leeds Rhinos’ big game players came to the fore as they stunned Wigan Warriors with a 39-28 victory at the Galpharm Stadium in an absorbing semi-final to progress through to the Challenge Cup final for the third consecutive year. The Super League holders, who were beaten 50-8 at home in Super League in the previous encounter between the teams in June were strong underdogs coming into the rematch of last year’s Wembley final, in which the Warriors prevailed.

Leeds opened up the match with three quick tries to defy the pundits and take a 16-0 lead early doors in the high-scoring first half. Sam Tomkins fumbled a Kevin Sinfield high kick to give Ryan Hall the first score of the game on four minutes. Tomkins again produced an error as he allowed a Sinfield kick to go into touch, unaware that it was a 40/20. From the resulting scrum Ben Jones-Bishop was on the end of a neat passing move to post Leeds’ second. Things would get worse for Wigan when Jamie Peacock took Sinfield’s forward-looking pass and the ex-England captain’s offload put Zak Hardaker over under the sticks.

Wigan, who had barely touched the ball got themselves into the game off the back of a subime Tomkins break. After Ben-Jones Bishop knocked on to prevent a certain try from Gareth Hock’s pass, Wigan eventually found their way over following the scrum through George Carmont. The arrears were reduced to 16-12 soon after when Gareth Hock took a deft pass from Brett Finch to power his way over, despite it appearing that the second-row man had taken the wrong option when he chose not to pass inside to Tomkins as he went for the try line himself.

However, the Rhinos responded with another three-try blitz with Hall finishing off in the corner after Danny McGuire’s break through the defence. Moments later, after Hall had the ball stripped from his grasp to prevent another certain try, Ryan Bailey managed to reach out and put the ball on the line from the resultant penalty. And when Jones-Bishop plucked the instrumental Sinfield’s chip kick to the corner the Yorkshiremen led 30-12.

Wigan were not done however and struck back as Liam Farrell’s poor pass fell to the feet of prop Ben Flower. However, the Welsh forward hacked the ball forward and was able to impressively outpace the chasing Leeds defence to drop on the ball and score with the conversion putting the lead back to 12. Tomkins added a penalty goal on the halftime hooter to make it 30-20 at the break in the frenetic eventful encounter.

Leeds were crucially the first to score in the second period in a controversial try finished by Hardaker. It appeared in the build-up that as the ball was passed insid and flicked by the chasing Michael McIlorum that it went forward off the hand of McGuire before Leeds’ fullback for the day pounced on it to score. However, referee Ben Thaler awarded the try with no hesitation much to the  chagrin of the Wigan fans.

Wigan captain Dean O’Loughlin pulled his side back to within 12 at 36-24. However, Sinfield the Leeds skipper showed his characterstic big game experience to slot over a dropgoal to make Wigan have to score three times. Wigan did pull one back when Josh Charnley was released by Darrell Goulding’s pass but that was as much inroad Wigan would make as the Rhinos held on with a late Sinfield penalty wrapping it up as the Rhinos mission to attain their first Cup final triumph since 1999 moves one step nearer.

It was a breathtaking end-to-end encounter which saw rugby league at its best with more than a bit of controversy. Shaun Wane’s men will now have to solely focus on their Super League ambitions as their hopes of a domestic double were scuppered, whilst Brian McDermott’s men will await to meet the winners of tomorrow’s semi-final clash between Warrington and Huddersfield under the Wembley arch on August 25th.


Simon Mulligan