Only six weeks or so ago the prospect of Leeds Rhinos even participating in the Super League playoffs was laughable. Now, they are starting to look like the team nobody would want to play when it matters most.
Rohan Smith’s turnaround here has been nothing short of remarkable. This is their fifth win in a row, and while it was far from their most polished, it was perhaps the one that told us the most about what his side are capable of as the playoffs loom large on the horizon. Leeds seemed on their way to a comfortable night’s work at half-time here, leading 24-6 against a Warrington side whose season is now over.
But tries from Ben Currie and Jake Wardle after half-time reduced Leeds’ advantage to just six. Furthermore, they had to absorb an extraordinary amount of pressure on their own line to prevent Warrington from scoring again. Time and time again, they survived. And they hung on to win. Because at this time of the year, only one thing really matters: winning – not how you do it, though the ultra-demanding Smith did not quite subscribe to that.
“Our attack was appalling in the second half,” he said. “Overall, I thought we were okay.” There is no questioning that six weeks ago, this Leeds side would have collapsed in those final moments, when the pressure was intense. But they have something about them now, and are now up to fifth with three rounds left. Whisper it quietly, but they could even yet catch fourth-placed Catalans. Nobody would have predicted that two months ago, when a relegation battle seemed more likely.
“When the scoreboard got tight, there was a lot at stake, but they kept doing their job,” Smith said. “The roar from everyone at the end gave me goosebumps.” That roar came from both the players and the majority of the supporters inside Headingley. Leeds dominated the first half and tries from Ash Handley, Rhyse Martin, Morgan Gannon and Zane Tetevano put them in complete control. At the other end, Warrington could only muster a scrappy try from Riley Dean.
At 24-6, you felt if Leeds scored first after half-time, it would have been a comfortable night’s work. But Warrington, to their credit, at least rallied.
“I asked the boys to win the second half and keep them scoreless and they did both those things,” their coach, Daryl Powell, said. I’m pleased with a lot of things.” His first year at the Wolves has been a disaster, and their faint playoff hopes were finally extinguished here.
But they did show enough in the second half to at least suggest they have some spirit and togetherness, something which has not always been there throughout 2022. They frustrated Leeds offensively, as Smith admitted post-match. And when Wardle and Currie both crossed for tries either side of the hour mark, what felt as if it was going to be a one-sided scoreline at half-time was suddenly in the balance.
On countless occasions, Warrington peppered the Leeds line. But time and time again, they held firm to escape with a slender victory. Would they have done that six weeks ago? Who knows. But one thing is for certain. This Leeds side are very much among the contenders for Old Trafford in 2022. Who would have thought that earlier this summer?