Bai hat-trick fires battling Leeds into Grand Final

Leeds 40 Wigan 12
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The Independent Online

Leeds, the best side in Super League all season, made it into the Grand Final at the second attempt at Headingley last night, showing all the confidence that some of their long-suffering fans feared that Bradford had knocked out of them last week.

The Papua New Guinean winger, Marcus Bai, led the way with three tries but this was a convincing team performance, despite a brave Wigan fightback on either side of half-time.

The Leeds coach, Tony Smith, made some significant tweaks to his team following last weekend's defeat by Bradford, with Mark Calderwood coming in on the wing and Ali Lauitiiti starting in the second row.

Wigan had Sean O'Loughlin on the field from the start despite having him taken to hospital with damaged limbs as they beat Wakefield last week. Not for the first time this season, they looked to be relying on patched up players.

It was all Leeds in the first ten minutes, culminating in a magnificent length of the field move kept out by Wigan's scrambling defence and by Andy Farrell conceding a penalty.

Leeds chose to run rather than kick and they got their reward when David Furner and Lauitiiti outflanked the defence and Marcus Bai was able to run around behind the posts to make it a certain six points.

The Rhinos continued to look sharp and dangerous and Wigan had to struggle to hold up Keith Senior over their line. It was astonishing that Wigan were managing to keep Leeds out, but they cracked again after 21 minutes.

Chris McKenna's long pass opened up play and although Danny Orr's tackle stopped Kevin Sinfield, Chev Walker was there to take the next pass and go over for another converted try.

Then came one that summed up Leeds at their best this season, started by Richard Mathers fielding a kick deep in his own territory, carried on by Bai and finished 90 yards later in Danny McGuire's inimitable style.

18 points ahead and the ignominious prospect of becoming the first side to lead Super League and fail to reach the Grand Final was fading into obscurity. It had disappeared completely by the time that Mathers dummied and went over from acting half after Senior had been stopped just short of the Wigan line.

Farrell has lifted Wigan so often this season and he did so once more two minutes before half-time, chasing Orr's kick to touch down just before the dead ball line. Even with his conversion, it left an awfully long way to go.

It looked a little less daunting when Luke Robinson scooted over to cash in on Wigan's good start to the second half.

After the pounding they had taken, there was due belief running through the Warriors, and they would have been closer still if Danny Tickle had been able to take Adrian Lam's pass after a dangerous break or if Craig Smith had been able to force the ball down from Terry Newton's pass.

It took another remarkable try to put Leeds back in control, McGuire hoisting the ball cross-field after they had kept the ball alive and Lauitiiti leaping to catch and smuggle the ball back for Bai to score his second.

The wing man claimed his third from another Lauitiiti pass after 68 minutes and Ryan Bailey rounded off a joyous night at Headingley when he pounced on O'Loughlin's fumble to send the Leeds fans into raptures.

* Warrington have had a £125,000 bid for Gareth Ellis rejected by Wakefield.

Leeds: Mathers; Calderwood, Walker, Senior, Bai; Sinfield, McGuire; Ward, Diskin, Bailey, McKenna, Lauitiiti, Furner. Substitues: McDermott, Jones-Buchanan, Burrow, Poching.

Wigan: Radlinski; Aspinwall, Brown, Wild, Dallas; Orr, Lam; Smith, Newton, Farrell, Tickle, Hock, O'Loughlin. Substitutes: O'Connor, Cassidy, Sculthorpe, Robinson.

Referee: K Kirkpatrick (Warrington).