Both sets of supporters came into todays Challenge Cup sixth round encounter between the Leeds Rhinos and the Wigan Warriors with a hope that their side would win, and an expectation that they would lose, and the bookies had a similar dilemma as they struggled to pick a favourite to progress.
While Wigan are challenging for top spot in the table, and Leeds struggling to find any consistency in the bottom half, the Rhinos fought back from 14-0 down and played the second forty with twelve men but came back to record an incredible 40-18 victory at the DW Stadium.
The Rhinos made several changes with Ash Handley and Blake Austin both unfit and Zane Tetevano suspended after last week´s sending off. Wigan had Liam Marshall and Ryan Hampshire back in their starting thirteen, but there was no place for Cade Cust.
On Wigan´s first use of the ball Abbas Miski spilled the ball in the tackle forty from his own line, but Wigan defended their line well and thwarted the Rhinos attack.
On seven minutes, with Ethan Havard nursing a nasty elbow injury in back play, the Rhinos worked downfield and were awarded a penalty on the Warriors twenty. On the second tackle Tom Holroyd dragged three Wigan tacklers over the line with him to ground under the sticks. Rhyse Martin added the conversion for a 6-0 lead, the Rhinos taking up where they left off last weekend.
A Jake Wardle break on twelve minutes gave Wigan possession against a broken defence but a kick on the last was swept up by Cameron Smith and the threat was over. Wigan then got over the whitewash twice on as many minutes, but both were ruled to have benefitted from a forward pass by referee Kendall.
On twenty-six minutes Harry Smith was called offside as he failed to get back in the line. Martin kicked the penalty goal to extend the Rhinos lead to eight.
Genius from Harry Newman on the half hour, juggling a pass from Sezer forty from the line before selfishly riding a tackle which his support cried for the pass and shrugging off his tackler before scoring. Martin added the goal for 14-0, the Rhinos kicking and chasing game killing the Warriors.
When Derrell Olpherts lost possession inside his own twenty, the Rhinos opened the door for Wigan and a penalty later Bevan French pushed away his one-on-one tackler to dot the ball down over the line. Smith pulled his conversion attempt across the face of the goal, Wigan still ten points adrift as half time approached.
Just thirty second of the second half had elapsed when Liam Farrell broke the Leeds line and found French in support to take the pass thirty-five from the line and sprint under the sticks for his second of the afternoon. Smith added the conversion to leave Wigan trailing by four.
A Harry Smith pass to Junior Nsemba saw the big Wigan forward dive over the line ten from the right upright to draw the scores level on fifty-three, Smith missed a simple looking conversion attempt but there was now nothing between the two sides.
A push from Leeds at the scrum forced a Wigan knock-on ten from the Warriors line but again the Wigan defence held firm.
On sixty-five Myler knocked on when taking a spiralling kick under chaser pressure from French and on the first play the ball Ryan Hampshire found Wardle to crash the Leeds line and take the lead for the visitors. Smith hit the far post with another simple conversion, the Wigan lead four points.
A Newman break should have led to a third Rhinos try but rather than pass the ball to Myler he held onto the ball and took the tackle when the try line was open for his support. Leeds final chance of the game had gone.
With two minutes left McDonnell tackled French off the ball and Wigan ran the clock down to take the four-point victory and make their first step on the road to Wembley.
It was a good first half for the Rhinos but a better second for a Wigan side who were inspired by a top-class Bevan French performance while Harry Smith ran red hot and cold in equal measure. For once the Rhinos were not allowed to play in the second half of a game and some selfishness from Harry Newman probably cost them when he did the predictable and backed himself rather than using his support. Wigan will feel that they have overcome a major hurdle and will be believing that their name could again be being engraved onto the famous trophy in a couple of month’s time.
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Olpherts, Newman (T), McDonald, Tindall, Gannon, Sezer, Oledzki, O´Connor, Holroyd (T), McDonnell, Martin (3G), Smith. Subs: Donaldson, Lisone, Johnson, Sangare. 18th Man: Walters.
Wigan Warriors: French (2T), Miski, King, Wardle (T), Marshall, Hampshire, Smith (G), Havard, Powell, Byrne, Smithies, Farrell, Shorrocks. Subs: Mago, O´Neill, Ellis, Nsemba (T). 18th Man: Thornley.
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 8-0, 12-0, 14-0, 14-4 : HT: 14-8, 14-10, 14-14, 14-18 : FT.
Lead Exchanges: Leeds – Square – Wigan.
Referee: Chris Kendall.