Warrington Wolves v Leeds Rhinos – Saturday, October 6th, 2012 – Old Trafford
At last, after 27 rounds and some nail biting play-off action, we know that Leeds Rhinos have kept their hopes of defending their title alive for one more week and, for the first time, Warrington Wolves will provide them with their final challenge. And what a challenge that will be.
In recent times, and particularly under the leadership of former Rhinos master Tony Smith, Warrington have had the better of their clashes with the men from Headingley. 2012, for example, has seen the Wolves win two of the three encounters between them, 37-18 at the Halliwell Jones in June and 35-18 in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in August, with Leeds gaining a 26-18 success on their home patch back in March.
It was the same in 2011, when the Wolves did the league double over Saturday’s opponents by scores of 40-24 at home and then 42-6 at Headingley, although the men in blue-and-amber gained revenge at the Halliwell Jones when they dumped Warrington out of the play-offs with a narrow 24-26 success, on their way to lifting a fifth Super League crown 12 months ago.
So how should we weigh up this grandest of finales? Can Warrington join Bradford and St Helens and become the third club to win the ‘double’ in the Super League era and add to their Wembley success? Undoubtedly, they are capable of doing so.
Tony Smith has moulded together a team that looks very comfortable in its own skin and plays to its considerable strengths. The suggestion throughout the week has been that international prop Garreth Carvell, one of just three Wolves to have previously played in a Grand Final, will miss out once again this weekend. Even so, fellow front-rower Chris Hill has had a tremendous season since joining the club from Leigh, while Ben Harrison is maturing with every game and his offloads regularly send the Wolves into second phase plays that are too difficult for many opponents to handle.
Backing them up from the bench are record-breaking international Adrian Morley (say no more) and club stalwart Paul Wood, while in the back row both England star Ben Westwood and Aussie Trent Waterhouse provide grunt and guile aplenty and regularly return statistical performances that set them above the majority in the competition.
Of course, there is no way that we can consider the Warrington pack without the men who provide them with great go-forward and they have two excellent exponents of the modern day role of the hooker in Micky Higham and Michael Monaghan.
More often than not, all of that combines to give the kicking genius of Lee Briers ample space within which to work and if he is able to direct operations then his team rarely ends up on the wrong end of the result.
If that isn’t enough then Aussie points machines Joel Monaghan and Lance Todd winner Brett Hodgson are both experienced and exciting backs, while Ryan Atkins and Stefan Ratchford continue to improve and might fancy their chances of being England’s centre pairing in next year’s World Cup.
The holders, of course, must feel as though Old Trafford is a second home. Although their Wembley woes have been well documented, the Manchester venue has proved a very happy hunting ground for the Rhinos.
Defeated in the first ever Grand Final by Wigan in 1998, they had to wait six years before returning. By then under the guidance of Tony Smith, Leeds had developed a winning mentality that saw them end a 32-year championship drought with success against arch rivals Bradford.
Twelve months on, that result was reversed, but Leeds have won all four subsequent appearances in the decider, each one against St Helens, and they do tend to save their best performance of the campaign until last.
Spearheading all of that out there on the field has been Kevin Sinfield. “Captain Fantastic”, “Mr Cool”, “Sir Kev”, call him what you will, there is no doubting that when he plays well, his team usually follows suit.
Five times the England star, Super League’s record points scorer, has lifted the coveted trophy and on all of those occasions he has been accompanied on the field by both Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire. There is no coincidence.
Playing together for so long has meant an inate understanding between the trio and that has served not only to help each of them as individuals, but also all the other players who have sported the blue-and-amber in that period of dominance.
Burrow was the unanimous choice of all 39 journalists who cast votes for the Harry Sunderland Award for his performance in last year’s final, to add to the one he won in 2007, while Super League’s record tryscorer, Danny McGuire, grabbed the winner in ’04 and regularly comes up with vital scores on the big stage. That sort of potency, flair and nous has counted for plenty when the Old Trafford chips have been down.
2012 has seen a team for which squad stability had become a byword lose stalwarts Ali Lauiti’iti and more recently Brent Webb. The reshuffle could hardly be described as seamless in terms of the team’s overall consistency throughout the campaign, but they are a team that now knows its own capabilities and are very much able to raise the bar when required to do so.
The World Club Challenge success against Manly and wins against Wigan in both the Challenge Cup semi-final and last weekend would appear to endorse that, with Wembley seemingly just a frustrating annual blip.
Zak Hardaker is as thrilling and precocious a full-back to watch as Brett Hodgson is assured and classy. Kallum Watkins may be far from the finished article at centre, but his added bulk this year, plus his wonderfully balanced running style has even drawn comparisons with the great former Kangaroo skipper Mal Meninga. That’s not bad for starters.
If anything there is a feeling that Leeds need another top class centre to run out alongside Watkins and both Jamie Lyon and fellow Aussie Joel Moon have been names doing the rounds among the rumour mill. Saturday will see Carl Ablett occupy that spot once again and if there was a career award for most valuable utility player in the summer era, then he would be very close to receiving it. Dependable, determined and with a rare knack of grabbing a try, he has been an unsung part of the club’s success. The Rhinos also have Ryan Hall, arguably the most clinical finisher in the game at the moment, plus a formidable pack of their own.
Aside from Sinfield, Jamie Peacock stands out like a beacon for the consistency of his warrior-like performances in the engine room, usually for the full 80 minutes. With the directness of fellow prop Kylie Leuluai, the endeavour of Jamie Jones-Buchanan and the belligerence of Ryan Bailey, plus the fizz of both Burrow and Shaun Lunt from dummy-half, the fifth-placed finishers still have plenty going for them.
McGuire was absent through injury at Wembley and, banned for last week’s win at the DW Stadium, he will be as fresh as they come. Coach Brian McDermott will rightly play his cards close to his chest, but it seems most likely that youngster Stevie Ward – the man who deputised for McGuire in the Challenge Cup Final – may be the one who has to make way this time.
The match-ups across the park are as physical, skillful and exciting as they come in the British game. The bookmakers have been keen to make Warrington favourites and on the handicap coupon the Rhinos have a 6-point start from most layers.
The Wolves have not been crowned champions since 1954-55. For them, success would be monumental, given the length of that wait. They have knocked on the door once or twice of late, but have had neither the mental nor physical strength to get over the threshold.
There is no doubting their appetite for success. There is no question about their ability as a team, finishing as they did nine points and three places higher than the Rhinos in the regular rounds of the season, with a points difference that was 209 better than the men from Headingley.
Recent weeks have seen them break one hoodoo in stringing together two play-off wins for the first time in their history. Apart from extending that club-best to a third, the most significant point they have left to prove is that that they can win the biggest trophy in the domestic game by producing another great performance when it really matters.
And what of Leeds? Well they have won all but two of 17 games of knockout football that they have contested since McDermott took the reins a little under two years ago and they have been in every final that it has been possible for him to take them to during his tenure.
They may not have quite the same lusty feeling of desire as first-time finalists, but their pride in defending a title that they won from fifth place, plus the will to underline their greatness as a collective, is beyond question.
They know precisely what it takes to succeed on this almost annual mission. They know that at some point on Saturday, if they are to back-up last year’s feat with another ‘first’, a successful defence from fifth place, then they will probably have to dig deeper within than for any performance this season.
The experience of previous successes suggests that they will be confident of finding what is required. As Sky Sports commentator Eddie Hemmings said of them in the aftermath of last week’s 12-13 success at Wigan “They never know when they’re beaten.”
Referee Richard Silverwood will get proceedings underway at 6pm on the day and let’s hope that, whatever the outcome, we are left talking about a great spectacle and not a controversial decision once the trophies have been handed out.
Can Warrington make their step into the unknown a successful one? Will Leeds once again be singing in the Manchester rain? It should be hugely enjoyable finding out.