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Rugby League

Wolves' wise old heads benefit from Leeds' loss of momentum

Warrington 35 Leeds 18

Tony Smith doesn't mind having the odd friendly dig at his more senior players. "The only reason I bring these two in," the Warrington coach said, nodding towards Brett Hodgson and Adrian Morley after the match, "is that they make me look young".

Sadly for Leeds, the two mid-thirty-somethings looked very much in the prime of life during the Challenge Cup final as the Rhinos failed again to win their "missing" trophy.

Hodgson, a 34-year-old skeleton of a rugby league player, was a deserving man of the match for the durability he showed in getting up from a legal but lethal tackle from Kylie Leuluai to orchestrate the Wolves' dance towards the finishing post.

It was an incident which showcased both the best and worst of the code. There was the extreme physical confrontation of Leuluai's crunching tackle, which was on the borderline of what is permitted in this toughest of team sports. There was also the uncomplaining way that Hodgson accepted it, insisting afterwards that Leuluai – "a champion bloke," he called him – had done nothing wrong. But there was, too, the interminable wait while the impact was shown and scrutinised time after time. It revealed nothing we had not seen the first time and it deprived both the game of much of its momentum and some of the 79,180 crowd, one suspects, of their will to live.

You could argue that Leeds never managed to get their momentum back. After Brett Delaney's no-try from the loose ball in the Hodgson-Leuluai collision, the Rhinos conceded three tries in 10 minutes, effectively scuppering their chances of a first Challenge Cup since 1999. Much of the damage had been done, however, a lot earlier than that.

Morley, the Warrington captain, would have been nettled to start on the bench. When he came on midway through the first half, he focused all the aggression that had been threatening to fly off in all directions. At 35, the man who first emerged as a hot-headed teenager at Leeds can still do the business on the big occasion.

The third of the Wolves' vigorous veterans, Lee Briers, had one of his less obviously eye-catching games, but his stealthy influence was still everywhere. That includes the performance of his half-back partner, Richie Myler, who made a number of Briers-style plays to put his team on top.

Two years ago, Myler was distraught to be left out of the Cup final side, but the heart that is broken at Wembley can be mended at Wembley, as he looked every inch a Test scrum-half. That healing process applied to Hodgson as well, because he was a member of the Huddersfield side beaten by the Wolves in 2009.

Briers paid fulsome tribute to him on Saturday, calling his "probably one of the best performances I've seen.

"He did a few outstanding things, but he was just so safe at the back. He gets whacked and whacked. You've got to be tough to do what he does."

As for Leeds, they were better than they were when they were thrashed by Warrington in the final two years ago, but not by much. They started strongly enough, with Jamie Peacock well to the fore, but once the game settled into a pattern they were always second best. The consensus, even among their own supporters, was that they would have been further behind at half-time had it not been for a monsoon downpour which turned part of the first half into a stalemate.

There is no doubt that they missed the injured Danny McGuire, with his 18-year-old understudy, Stevie Ward, struggling to make his mark on the game.

There were flashes of the potential of Zak Hardaker and, with his two late tries, Kallum Watkins, as well as the appearance of the first German to play in the final in the shaoe of the Leeds Metropolitan University student, Jimmy Keinhorst. But it did not add up to enough to trouble Warrington, which meant that the game never quite amounted to the classic it could have been. Rugby league, with its current climate of financial problems at clubs, could have used a more ringing vindication.

Even some Warrington fans seemed to find a reason to be pessimistic. Their side's challenge now is to regroup in time for a stab at the Grand Final, which they have never reached. Everyone is agreed that to complete that double will require something really special – and the Wolves, exceptional side though they are, might not quite have it. "Ah well," said one supporter, who had been through the celebratory phase and had arrived at the maudlin, glass-half-empty stage, "there goes our chance of winning Super League".

Scorers: Leeds: Tries Kirke, Watkins 2. Goals Sinfield 3. Warrington: Tries J Monaghan, Waterhouse, Riley, Atkins, McCarthy, Hodgson; Goals Hodgson 5; Drop goal Briers.

Leeds Ward, Jones-Bishop, Hall, Delaney, Watkins, Hardaker, Burrow, Sinfield, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan, Bailey, Leuluai, Peacock.

Replacements Keinhorst, Griffin, Kirke, Lunt.

Warrington Hodgson, Riley, J Monaghan, Hill, Atkins, Briers, Myler, Harrison, Ratchford, Waterhouse, Westwood, Higham, Carvell.

Replacements McCarthy, M Monaghan, Morley, Wood.

The final indignity: Leeds' half-dozen horrors

2000 Lost 24-18 to Bradford at Huddersfield

2003 Lost 22-20 to Bradford at Cardiff

2005 Lost 25-24 to Hull at Cardiff

2010 Lost 30-6 to Warrington at Wembley

2011 Lost 28-18 to Wigan at Wembley

2012 Lost 35-18 to Warrington at Wembley