It is probably the climax the season cried out for – Leeds versus St Helens in the Grand Final at Old Trafford next Saturday – but that line-up was only confirmed after a magnificently brave effort from Wigan here last night. Under siege for much of the match, they hung in against all the odds and were not beaten until Lee Smith's second try three minutes from time.
"I was real confident that the guys weren't going to be denied," said the Leeds coach, Brian McClennan, of his side's long battle to wear Wigan down. "But I looked at them and thought 'Gee, you're going to have to show some fortitude here." Wigan showed plenty of that. "All 17 gave their all," said Brian Noble. "We just didn't have the field position to post enough points."
It was a dislocated start, with half the South Stand roped off because of safety fears and Wigan stuck in traffic on the M62. When they did arrive, it was to a warm welcome from Leeds, who dominated the early stages. Smith did well to defuse a tricky kick from Trent Barrett and triggered a spectacular counter-attack. Jamie Jones-Buchanan carried the ball another 60 metres before being caught by Mark Calderwood, who paid the price for tying to slow down the restart by being sent to the sin-bin.
Leeds' Keith Senior went with him, for swinging the most eye-catching punches in the fracas that followed, but the Rhinos, normally so averse to taking kicks for goals, took the lead through Kevin Sinfield's penalty.
Wigan equalised through Pat Richards but the key moment of a tight, torrid first half came when Stuart Fielden was penalised in a tackle to allow Leeds to move upfield. Danny McGuire threw out a dreadful pass that Smith had to stretch to catch and touch down to give his side a four-point lead
Calderwood continued his try-saving heroics in the second half before George Carmont kept McGuire out and Richard Mathers and Liam Colbon were adjudged, after almost five minutes waiting for the video referee, to have held up Jamie Peacock.
Eventually, something had to crack and it did, just before the hour, when Scott Donald took Lauitiiti's pass and managed to turn it back inside for Senior before he could be forced into touch. This time not even the tenacity of Calderwood could stop Senior.
Sinfield added the conversion, plus a penalty when Mathers pulled back Donald in a chase for the ball.
Wigan gave themselves hope when Harrison Hansen went in from Thomas Leuluai's pass, but after Sinfield had missed a drop goal, Smith hacked on a loose ball to clinch a place in the Grand Final. Even then Feka Paleaaesina got one back for Wigan, but it was too late to change the outcome when Fielden knocked on from the kick-off.
Leeds: Webb; Smith, Ablett, Senior, Donald; McGuire, Burrow; K Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield. Substitutes used: Lauitiiti, Bailey, Scruton, Kirke.
Wigan: Mathers; Calderwood, Phelps, Carmont, Richards; Barrett, T Leuluai; Fielden, Higham, Coley, Hansen, Bailey, J Tomkins. Substitutes used: Paleaaesina, Smith, Hock, Colbon.
Referee: S Ganson (St Helens)