Leeds coach Rohan Smith always had faith in his players as they produced a remarkable display of grit and determination to condemn 12-man Wigan to a first home defeat of the season and reach an 11th Super League Grand Final.
The Rhinos were under the cosh for virtually the whole of the first half of Friday’s semi-final at the DW Stadium but managed to restrict their opponents to a 4-2 interval lead before finding their attacking rhythm in the second half.
Makeshift hooker Jarrod O’Connor scored his first try for the club four minutes into the second half and former St Helens second-rower James Bentley added two more to help Leeds to a stunning 20-8 victory that takes them through to Old Trafford next Saturday.
“I was not at all worried,” Smith said of his team’s stoical rear-guard efforts in the first half. “It’s part of the game.
“I feel there is belief in the group that we could find our way through it.
“Our goal-line defence has been very good for a period of time now, there is a lot of trust and belief. Everyone was calm and relaxed and doing their job.
“Everybody felt good about themselves going in at 4-2.”
The only disappointment for Leeds was an injury to scrum-half Aidan Sezer, who was taken off for a head injury assessment after being felled by a high and late tackle by Wigan’s England forward John Bateman and is in danger of missing the Grand Final.
“We haven’t spoken to the doctor yet,” Smith said. “I’m trying to enjoy it for a few minutes. We’ll talk about Aidan on the way home.”
A first trip to Old Trafford for five years caps a remarkable turn-around in the fortunes of the Rhinos, who were second from bottom of Super League in April after winning just one of their first 10 games.
Smith added: “I came not knowing a lot, but I knew enough to know there was a good group of players and a good group of people.
“I’m really proud and privileged to be part of it. Now the dust is settling, we’re starting to think about next week a bit.”
Smith confirmed that centre Harry Newman will not be fit to play in the Grand Final while fellow threequarters Ash Handley and David Fusitu’a remain injury doubts.
Bateman was shown a red card for his tackle on Sezer and will now face an anxious wait to discover if it puts his World Cup place in jeopardy, with the Rugby Football League’s match review panel set to take a close look at the incident on Monday.
“I’ve no complaints,” said Wigan coach Matt Peet. “We understand the rules.
“John had all the best intentions, it was a split-second error. I hope Aidan’s okay.
“It would be sad if he got a ban, but I suppose they’ve got to stick what they’ve done all season. It would be a shame if misses out on World Cup games.”
Wigan’s misery was compounded by the loss of tryscoring phenomenon Bevan French with a foot injury early in the second half and they trailed 20-4 before hooker Sam Powell marked his 250th appearance for them with a late consolation try.
“I’m sad for the group but remain really proud of the group,” said Peet, who guided Wigan to victory in the Challenge Cup final in his first season as head coach. “It’s been a special year.
“Leeds deserve enormous amount of credit for the way they played, for the way they defended their goal-line in particular. They showed great resilience, which is a sign of commitment to each other.”
Defeat brought a disappointing end to the distinguished career of Wigan captain Thomas Leuluai, who made his 327th appearance in place of the injured Cade Cust.
Peet said: “His career speaks for itself, it’s been a fairytale his family should be proud of.”
Leuluai will pull on his shirt for one last time for New Zealand in their World Cup warm-up match against Leeds in October.
“It’s a feeling of disappointment, but I’m proud of the group,” he said. “The send-off made it pretty hard, but they kept going.
“I’ve had worse losses than this. We came up against a really good team, I thought Leeds were fantastic.”