Leeds continued their late-season resurgence with a tense 24-18 win over Warrington at Headingley to climb to a season-high fifth place in Super League.
A fifth successive win moves the Rhinos to within three points of fourth-placed Catalans Dragons, their opponents in the penultimate fixture of the regular season; and strengthens the belief that Rohan Smith’s men could be dark horses for the Grand Final.
Architects of the victory were half-backs Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin, paired together for the first time in six weeks. Leeds were also boosted by the impact made by returning back-rowers Rhyse Martin and James Bentley.
Among the try scorers as Leeds established a 24-6 interval lead was 18-year-old second rower Morgan Gannon, who combined brain and brawn 24 hours after discovering he got two As and a B in his A-levels.
Warrington, with little to play for but pride, brought in stand-off Riley Dean in place of the injured Stefan Ratchford. They also handed debuts off the bench to teenagers Adam Holroyd and Luke Thomas.
Playing with the swagger and confidence befitting a team on a roll with four straight wins, Leeds attacked with venom from the start. They took the lead after four minutes when Martin slipped the ball out of a two-man tackle for full-back Richie Myler to put winger Ash Handley over for a try on his 150th Super League appearance.
Warrington’s only try of a one-sided first half was scored in fortuitous fashion by Dean. The Ireland World Cup hopeful re-gathered the ball after his grubber kick on the last tackle rebounded off the legs of a defender.
Peter Mata’utia kicked the conversion to level the scores but that was as good as it got for the visitors, who were second best in all departments throughout the first half.
Leeds coach Smith was forced to re-shuffle his team after losing winger Liam Tindall to injury. He switched Martin to centre and he scored the next try courtesy of a neat offload from the impressive Bentley.
Loose forward Cameron Smith then got the outstanding Gannon charging in for a try and on the stroke of half-time Bentley worked prop Zane Tetevano over for his first try since the opening game of the season against Warrington six months ago. Martin kicked his fourth conversion to make it 24-6.
HT: Leeds Rhinos 24-6 Warrington Wolves
The Wolves hinted at a fightback four minutes into the second half. Centre Jake Wardle dummied his way over for a fifth try in nine appearances for the club.
Mata’utia added the goal and the score seemed to inject fresh enthusiasm into the Warrington side who camped themselves inside the Leeds half.
In a rare attack, Austin thought he had scored against his old club. Martin took a quick 20-metre re-start but he was brought back for a forward pass; and the visitors scored again to set up a tense finish.
Thomas, a 19-year-old prop who made his international debut for Wales against France in June, was denied a memorable try. He was held up over the line but the Wolves maintained the pressure and Ben Currie marked his 200th Super League appearance by diving onto George Williams’ kick for a try which Mata’utia converted.
FT: Leeds Rhinos 24-18 Warrington Wolves
Leeds: Myler; Tindall, Hardaker, Sutcliffe, Handley; Austin, Sezer; Oledzki, O’Connor, Tetevano, Martin, Gannon, Bentley. Subs: Prior, Dwyer, Smith, Walters.
Tries: Handley, Martin, Gannon, Tetevano Goals: Martin 4
Warrington: Dufty; Minikin, Mata’utia, Wardle, Ashton; Williams, Dean; Mulhern, Walker, Bullock, Currie, Harrison, Holmes. Subs: D Clark, J Clark, Holroyd, Thomas.
Tries: Dean, Wardle, Currie Goals: Mata’utia 3