Leeds Rhinos 22 Wigan Warriors 20
Jonathan Doidge at Old Trafford
Leeds confirmed themselves as the greatest club of the Super League era by completing their own unprecedented treble, so bringing down the curtain on the careers of skipper Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, in the most remarkable manner. It was a night on which records tumbled and this theatre really did make the Rhinos’ dreams come true.
Sinfield led his team to a seventh Old Trafford success, records both for a team and for a captain, while ‘JP’ now stands alone as the only player to have played in 11 Grand Finals and the only one to have won nine. Yes, you have to read that again to attempt to take in the magnitude of those achievements.
However, as the Rhinos were at pains to point out in the build-up, this was far from being all about those fabulous few. In a Harry Sunderland Trophy-winning effort, two-try Danny McGuire seamlessly took on the baton of seniority that he will carry for a few years yet, while at the other end of the spectrum, 20-year-old Josh Walters – a surprise selection by coach Brian McDermott – scored the game’s decisive try. Amazingly, his career total is one short of the number scored by McGuire at Old Trafford alone, but his smash ‘n’ grab short spell on the field will soon be the stuff of folklore down LS6 way.
And what a final! On a day when the other code’s national side was licking its wounds across the city, in front of a record First Utility Grand Final crowd, this immensely tense and, at the same time intense contest, was stuff of which the RFL marketeers could only fantasise when they coined the catchphrase “Every Minute Matters”.
On aggregate in four previous meetings this season the teams were separated by only two points. It was the same again here, but this time the Rhinos recorded their first win against Wigan in seven finale attempts. It took some shaking but that monkey is, at last, off their backs.
The only round of fixtures that Leeds have missed out on in 2015 was the expanded World Club Challenge. That hurt the players, after their post-Wembley form last year had tailed-off so badly that they didn’t make the cut. Next time around they will proudly take on NRL premiers North Queensland Cowboys, a mouthwatering prospect for all league fans in the cold months ahead.
But that’s for the future. For now, let’s consider what the Rhinos have done not only at Old Trafford, but in the course of a season that defies belief. Leading Super League for much of the campaign, they have had their occasional wobbles, most notably in that three-week post-Wembley period. Maybe some who don’t play fail to understand just how much that Challenge Cup final experience can take out of a team.
From another angle, however, what this team has done is show that it can win big games any which way it has to. Sometimes by any which way it chooses. From crushing their Wembley opponents Hull KR by a record margin, to nicking the League Leaders Shield with the last play of the game, then coming from behind to lead when it mattered most against St Helens in their Super 8s semi-final.
And finally, this real rollercoaster of a win that had their fans nauseous with nerves in the last 15 minutes, when collectively the Rhinos looked their opponents square in the eyes and just would not be denied. Up against it for large spells, they gave another masterclass in finding a way to win.
Sinfield was superb in his 528th and farewell appearance in the sport, Peacock a tackling machine in his 500th, while Brad Singleton probably produced his best big-game effort to date and in the backs there were moments of magic in a clinical display of finishing.
Wigan appeared to make more metres more easily than their opponents for much of the contest and their supporters had plenty to cheer about as their team took the game the distance. Less than 24 hours after becoming a father, Matty Bowen put in a sensational effort including a wonderful individual try. Had the Warriors lifted the trophy then he was the most likely candidate for individual honours, but he could not bow out on a winning note.
Sean O’Loughlin tried to harness the efforts of his team but despite great starts to both halves and a lengthy period of dominance after the break, they huffed and puffed in vain and, while they had the walls shaking at times, they were never allowed to blow Leeds’ house down.
If there was one moment where you felt that their candle had burned out it was when Tony Clubb, surely not the kicker of choice with two minutes to go in a Grand Final, fluffed an attempted bomb and with it both that Warriors set, and their challenge, had finally petered out.
Post-match, some of the cherry-and-whites players were quick to point to the awarding of Joel Moon’s 27th minute score as one of several decisions that they believed had cost them the game. However, they had plenty of opportunities to finish off their opponents when they hit the front, but they couldn’t quite muster the necessary. Moments of indiscipline were also costly, with several penalties giving Leeds a foothold from which to strike.
Brian McDermott’s men led 16-6 at half-time, despite trailing to an wonderful early Joe Burgess try, created by Liam Farrell’s break from inside his own half. Bowen added a good conversion to that, but Matty Smith knocked-on Hardaker’s restart and the Rhinos were not about to pass up the opportunity to make a swift response.
Hall and Garbutt each took them close, before Sinfield’s grubber was pounced on by McGuire for his first try, goaled by his skipper.
Leeds were soon dropping out for the first of three occasions, but McIlorum’s dash for glory against his hometown club saw him lose the ball close to the line. McGuire also did well to field Tomkins’ last-tackle grubber under huge pressure, as the Warriors tried to fashion something.
The Rhinos were suffering territorial losses as their opponents forced them to kick from well inside their own half on a number of occasions. But they hung in there and received a welcome first penalty when Farrell laid on too long. It was a vital momentum swing.
Briscoe did well to win his aerial challenge with Burgess, before Watkins did brilliantly to keep the touch-bound ball alive by flicking it back infield. Leeds then got a further penalty when Williams ripped the ball from Hardaker, before the full back ran wide, held up Bowen superbly and fed Moon back on the inside, for the centre to score in the right-hand corner.
Ref Ben Thaler referred it to his video colleagues as a try, and though on big-screen replays McGuire appeared to have lost it in the build-up, it was hard to discern which way the ball went first and the score stood. Sinfield’s conversion went a whisker wide of the upright.
Wigan had an opportunity for a quick riposte when McGuire coughed up the ball inside his own half, but Williams’ kick went dead in-goal when his team needed better, and similarly Manfredi was soon penalised for tackling Hall in the air, as Smith’s bomb fell from the Manchester skies.
Once again, the surrender of the field cost Shaun Wane’s men and this time it was the Rhinos who hit them from deep. Spotting Burgess hanging back, McGuire floated a long ball to Briscoe. The Wembley hero then drew the Warriors tryscorer and released Watkins who, with Gildart clinging on for dear life, had the strength to carry the ball until McGuire popped up on his inside to complete a wonderful score. It was a remarkable sixth try for the half-back in eight Super League deciders. Sinfield goaled.
Whatever Shaun Wane said to his team at the break looked like it might have done the trick, for within nine minutes of the restart they had wrested the lead from their opponents.
A McGuire fumble, a Leuluai high shot on Williams and then a Smith grubber that was turned dead, conspired to march Leeds back down the field in a matter of moments. From the dropout the Warriors saw Gildart go close, before O’Loughlin’s cross field bomb was brilliantly plucked out of the air by Manfredi, who dived over to get his team back in it.
Bowen’s goal maximised the score and he was soon adding six more points with a tremendous ‘twinkletoes’ effort to beat four men and race in underneath the posts, coupled with the conversion, to restore them to pole position.
Hardaker’s exit run was a rare moment of respite for Leeds in a third quarter dominated by the cherry-and-whites. Watkins went high on Farrell; Tomkins made a half-break and Leeds, by now looking punch-drunk, somehow clung on in another herculean defensive effort.
A penalty against Watkins was further punishment for the double-winners, as Bowen slotted over the goal to edge his team four points ahead with 18 minutes remaining. It was an understandable call with a straight shot for the posts, though perhaps significantly it would have been more preferable to Leeds than another defensive set. As against Saints eight days earlier, they were left needing a converted try to win it and that carrot had once again been dangled.
Once more the Rhinos hit back, McGuire’s last-tackle kick was touched by Manfredi but ended up with Moon, who fed Keinhorst to his inside and he sent the supporting Walters over for only his fifth career try and one that he will never forget. Sinfield’s goal nudged his team into a lead that they would fight tooth and nail to hold on to.
Wigan still made good metres in response, though Bowen fluffed a descending bomb and when Tomkins’ kick ahead was fielded by Hall – who was subjected to a dangerous tackle by Manfredi – the Rhinos filled their lungs for one last effort. It felt like the tide really had turned.
McIlorum’s high shot on Burrow gave Sinfield a possible 35-metre shot at goal to lead by four, but the skipper spurned it for a further tilt at an exhausted Warriors defence, as they repeatedly jabbed them back into their own ‘20’, before that Clubb kick suggested that their ideas, and energy, had run dry.
The scenes at the final hooter were remarkable. Workaholic Carl Ablett and retiring Leuluai extended their unbeaten Grand Final runs to six, while for Moon and Walters it was their first winner’s ring at their first attempt. The party will go on for days to come and perhaps the only thing missing on the night was the post-match speeches that have been a feature of some previous deciders.
As for Sinfield and Peacock it is on to pastures new. Their impact on the sport, their legacies, will be deep and lasting. Before kick-off they were already bona fide greats of the game.
As Leeds were lifting the Challenge Cup in August, the sport immortalised some of its finest with a statue at Wembley. Never mind bronze, these two have won more gold than any other in the summer era, although chiselling something out of granite might seem more appropriate.
1 Zak Hardaker
2 Tom Briscoe
3 Kallum Watkins
4 Joel Moon
5 Ryan Hall
13 Kevin Sinfield (Capt)
6 Danny McGuire
30 Mitch Garbutt
7 Rob Burrow
15 Brett Delaney
12 Carl Ablett
19 Brad Singleton
Subs (all used)
8 Kylie Leuluai
17 Adam Cuthbertson
20 Jimmy Keinhorst
21 Josh Walters
Tries: McGuire (7, 35), Moon (27), Walters (64)
Goals: Sinfield 3/4
1 Matty Bowen
22 Dominic Manfredi
14 John Bateman
34 Oliver Gildart
5 Joe Burgess
6 George Williams
7 Matty Smith
8 Dom Crosby
9 Michael McIlorum
10 Ben Flower
11 Joel Tomkins
12 Liam Farrell
13 Sean O’Loughlin (Capt)
Subs (all used)
16 Sam Powell
17 Tony Clubb
23 Lee Mossop
25 Larne Patrick
Tries: Burgess (4), Manfredi (45), Bowen (49)
Goals: Bowen 4/4
Referee: Ben Thaler 70/100
Video referees: Richard Silverwood & Phil Bentham
Man of the Match: Danny McGuire – The King has retired, long live the King
Weather: Mild, dry.
Match rating: 5/5