The Super League play off picture became a little clearer following round two of the Super 8s phase.
League and Cup double-seeking Leeds Rhinos defeated second place Wigan Warriors at Headingley which, coupled with St Helens’ shock defeat at home to Hull FC, gives Brian McDermott’s men a four point buffer at the summit of the table.
Castleford Tigers edged out Warrington Wolves, who now need a minor miracle to make the top four in five rounds time while Huddersfield Giants all but ended Catalans Dragons plans of a run to Old Trafford.
The Rhinos’ 25-18 victory over Wigan was their eighth win in their last nine matches and they look almost certain to finish top of the pile, despite the distraction of the Challenge Cup Final at the end of the month.
Stevie Ward impressed in the absence of Paul Aiton, notching up over 40 tackles on the night while skipper Kevin Sinfield controlled the match in attack for the hosts.
Danny McGuire, Joel Moon, Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins scored the tries and Zak Hardaker slotted over the first drop goal of his career as Leeds ran out fairly comfortable winners. Two of Wigan’s four tries came late on which made the final score a little easier to swallow, but they never really looked likely to take the two points.
The only dark spot on the night for Leeds was a head injury to Mitch Achurch, who was making his first appearance since Magic Weekend. The back rower left the field on a stretcher but has since tweeted he hopes to return for next week’s match with Hull FC.
Lee Radford’s men produced the shock of the round at Langtree Park, coming from 18-6 behind at the break to defeat Saints 32-22 and keep alive their slim hopes of breaking into the top four.
Curtis Naughton bagged a hat-trick for the visitors who sit seventh in the table, six points off the play off places with five rounds to go.
The Black and Whites have only lost once in their last five visits to St Helens but with a 12 point deficit at half-time, not many saw this comeback on the cards.
Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham, who has now seen his side lose their last three games in league and cup, was far from happy with his team’s performance: “It was one of the worst games of rugby league I have seen for a long time. Our completion rate was only 51 per cent in the first half and then 43 per cent.
“I’m bemused and can’t get my head round that. Now I know about the trials and tribulations of coaching.”
Cunningham’s opposite number Lee Radford praised hat-trick hero Naughton and full-back Jamie Shaul: “Curtis is a complicated character and made a couple of crazy errors in the first half but I was really pleased with his long-distance tries,” the Airlie Birds boss added.
“Jamie has been in the wilderness but deserves a lot of credit for an effort like that.”
That defeat leaves the defending champions only two points above Huddersfield and Castleford, who sit fourth and fifth respectively.
The Tigers kicked off the round at home to Warrington on Thursday night and looked to be heading for a comfortable win having led by 10 points but ended up needing a last minute drop goal from Liam Finn to seal the two points.
In-form Justin Carney grabbed a brace and captain Michael Shenton crossed for his fifth try in two games as the Tigers all but ended Wire’s season.
Wolves head coach Tony Smith has called for his inconsistent team to play for pride for the last five rounds of the competition: “Rugby league is about going out to try your hardest to win each and every week, regardless of whether you can make finals,” the 48-year-old said.
“When you cross that white line you’ve got to play for the pride of your club and team-mates,” he told BBC Radio Merseyside.
Thursday’s win took Cas into fourth place for 24 hours but they were pushed back down to fifth as Huddersfield defeated Catalans Dragons 24-12 at the John Smith’s Stadium to usurp Daryl Powell’s men.
The visitors scored first through Willie Tonga as Laurent Frayssinous’ men dominated early on, but the Giants hit their straps and ran out comfortable winners.
Jermaine McGillvary scored twice and Jack Hughes and Aaron Murphy grabbed one each as the Giants won for the fourth home game in a row.
The defeat leaves Catalans bottom of the eight and needing to win all of their remaining fixtures to have any hope of making the top four.
Meanwhile, Huddersfield move above the Tigers on points difference, with the two sides set to face each other at the John Smith’s Stadium on Septemeber 3rd.