Ash Handley’s try for Leeds enough to see off lacklustre Wigan

Well, Leeds do know how to win it from fifth after all. But as the supporters began to stream out of the DW Stadium in the dying moments here, you felt the attention was not so much on the Rhinos’ hopes of a ninth Super League title remaining alive, but the fact that, in truth, Wigan Warriors and their supporters had finally been put out of their misery in 2021.

Leeds hadn’t won in Wigan for eight years prior to this season. Since then, they have stopped the Warriors scoring twice in a matter of weeks, here in a manner that ultimately summed up one of the most forgettable seasons in the history of this great, proud rugby league club. Despite plenty of effort, the Warriors were bereft of creativity in attack at crucial junctures this year, and how that point was emphasised here.

In truth, any side that has failed to score five times in one season – four of those at home – has no right to be playing in a Grand Final. Leeds did enough to finally end any lingering doubt that Wigan could revitalise themselves for the play-offs, with Ash Handley’s second-half try ultimately enough to secure a trip to either Catalans or St Helens in week two. They will have to improve next week, but here, they didn’t really have to get out of second gear.

“Rugby league is a game of inches,” the Wigan coach, Adrian Lam said here as his time in charge ended with a whimper. But on too many occasions this year, Wigan have been miles, not inches, away from the best sides in the competition. “We were gutsy, but that’s the way it ends sometimes. This club will always be great, and the group deserves a bit more than what they’re feeling tonight.”

For Wigan, attention will now turn to who succeeds Lam in 2022, and they have an almighty rebuild on their hands at the DW Stadium. But this was ultimately Leeds’ night, as they kept alive their hopes of winning the Grand Final from fifth once again. The only side to win at Old Trafford after finishing that low in the Super League table, Handley’s second-half try here proved to be the difference.

“They’ve always defended well, and points are hard to come by here,” Leeds’ coach, Richard Agar, said. “You felt that would be the case again here. We’ve not spoke about the past and winning it from fifth, but we’ll get ourselves ready for another huge game next.” Will Leeds have to improve to progress next week? Almost certainly. But here, you couldn’t really argue with the final outcome.

Following a first half with few clear-cut chances, you always felt the side that scored first after half-time would seize the initiative. That came as the hour mark approached when a Kruise Leeming kick found its way into the arms of Handley, who raced free to break the deadlock. Rhyse Martin converted, and any notion of a Wigan response was quickly dispelled as they huffed and puffed.

By the time Martin added a penalty to make it 8-0 in the final moments, many home supporters had already headed for the exits. Leeds live to fight another day, but for Wigan, there is a monumental winter ahead.