Rugby League

England 48 France 4

Jonathan Doidge at Salford City Stadium

Winger Ryan Hall took the scoring plaudits with a record-equalling four tries as England emerged from their last official Test fixture before the 2013World Cup with their second win in as many weeks against the French.

This was a more composed performance than their Craven Park success and, while was still some indiscipline from Gareth Hock that would be much more of a concern against Australia or New Zealand, there were more positives than negatives for coach Steve McNamara to work with during the next 11 months.

Rob Burrow certainly injected some life into the home side after his introduction from the bench, while his skipper Kevin Sinfield was again at the helm organising the men in red-and-white, having a hand in several tries and kicking eight goals from as many attempts.

Despite last week’s 44-6 defeat of the same opposition, McNamara made some changes. Back in came Josh Charnley to replace Tom Briscoe on the wing, while Rangi Chase also returned at half-back, deposing the in-form Richie Myler.

In the pack Sean O’Loughlin had shaken off a hamstring injury sufficiently to get his place back at loose-forward, meaning a reshuffle that cost Ben Harrison a place on the bench.

The French fielded a team that looked better on paper than had seemed the case after Cologni’s team suffered three injuries at Craven Park. The losses of Cyril Stacul at full-back and lock Gregory Mounis meant call-ups for winger Teddy Sadaoui and pack man Sebastien Raguin, while Les Tricolores were boosted by the return of prop Jamal Fakir.

That said, there was not much Fakir could do to prevent the opening score, initiated at acting half-back by Michael McIlorum and also involving Chase and a lovely sweeping run into the line by full back Tomkins, who sent Hall cruising over in the left-hand corner to hit the 150-try mark for his career.

The French response came on the back of successive penalties with Barthau almost taking advantage of McIlorum’s dash out of the England defensive line before a deft Bosc chip over was turned dead by Charnley for a drop-out.

The Wigan winger then did well to take Saddaoui into touch as the visitors again threatened and after that spell of defending the favourites hit back to maximum effect, sweeping downfield from a penalty for a two-man ball steal before Sinfield sent Tomkins stepping his way over from 10 metres out.

England’s best try of the half came just before the half-hour mark. Again piggy-backed downfield by a penalty, they switched play swiftly from right to left through the hands of McIlorum, Sinfield and Chase before O’Loughlin’s long pass sent Hall diving over in the corner for a second on the night.

Despite the loss of Adrian Morley soon after the restart with a bang to the head, McNamara’s men improved on their first-half effort with a more convincing showing.

Charnley completed a five-man handling move with a try in the right-hand corner before Hall completed his hat-trick, after Burrow had sucked in three defenders and put him over at the opposite side of the pitch.
France had to do a lot of defending as their opponents, save for some handling errors from Hock, respected possession.

That tackling stint cost Cologni’s men further when Sinfield spotted another arcing Tomkins run to send the Warriors star across for a second try, before England came up with the score of the night.

Defending close to their own line after a dangerous-looking Barthau run, Chase picked up a Bosc grubber, found open space and charged 55-metres upfield. Tomkins was on hand to take the ball on before linking with Hall, who strode the last 25-metres, outpacing the cover to complete a magnificent score under the posts, his fourth of the game.

England were certainly beginning to look more polished on attack as the game wore on and grabbed an eighth try when Burrow supported an Ellis half-break to scorch away and touch down wide on the left. That completed matters for the home side, though France had the last word when Matthias Pala made the most of Charnley’s fumble to get first to a Barthau grubber with a minute remaining.

England
1 Sam Tomkins
2 Josh Charnley
3 Kallum Watkins
4 Leroy Cudjoe
5 Ryan Hall
6 Kevin Sinfield (Capt)
7 Rangi Chase
8 Lee Mossop
9 Mickey McIlorum
10 Chris Hill
11 Jamie Jones-Buchanan
12 Gareth Ellis
13 Sean O’Loughlin

Subs (all used)
14 Rob Burrow
15 Carl Ablett
16 Gareth Hock
17 Adrian Morley

Tries: Hall (9, 28, 46, 64), Tomkins (25, 57), Charnley (44), Burrow (71)
Goals: Sinfield 8/8

France
1 Clement Soubeyras
2 Teddy Sadaoui
3 Kevin Larroyer
4 Vicent Duport
5 Mathias Pala
6 Thomas Bosc
7 William Barthau
8 Jamal Fakir
9 Kane Bentley
10 Remi Casty
11 Olivier Elima (Capt)
12 Sebastien Raguin
13 Jason Baitieri

Subs (all used)
14 Romaric Bemba
15 Tony Gigot
16 Julian Bousquet
17 Mathieu Griffi

Tries: Pala (79)

Goals: Bosc 0/1

Referee: Shane Rehm (NZ)
Video referee: Steve Ganson
Half time: 18-0
Penalties: 8-11
Weather: Cold, dry
Attendance: 7,921
Man of the Match: Ryan Hall – Record-equalling effort from a clinical finisher

Warrington Wolves 18 Leeds Rhinos 26

Jonathan Doidge at Old Trafford

Kevin Sinfield lifted the Stobart Super League trophy for a record sixth time and collected his second Harry Sunderland Award after inspiring another magnificent collective Old Trafford effort from his Leeds Rhinos teammates, in a game that was not decided until the captain converted Ryan Hall’s try with just eight minutes remaining.

The Rhinos skipper scored a try of his own and kicked five goals from as many attempts for a 14-point haul, despite twice suffering under hefty collisions that might have signalled the end of the game for lesser men.

Once again outstanding in the blue-and-amber was Rob Burrow, whose darting runs continually asked questions of Warrington, while Carl Ablett continues to defy those who suggest that the champions need a top class centre, with another influential performance that included a vital try.

After breaking records by winning the competition from fifth last year, the Rhinos set one here that surely will not be beaten for decades to come, in completing a successful defence of the crown from that same position.

Jamie Peacock underlined his already legendary status by extending his individual record to an eighth winner’s ring but, while there is no doubt that Brian McDermott’s team deserved this success, it was far from a one-sided affair.

In their quest for the domestic double, Warrington led early in the piece through a score by the excellent Richard Myler. They also had the best of the game either side of half time when first they drew level at the break, before leading for most of the third quarter.

However, the pack that could allow its kickers the most room for manoeuvre over the 80 minutes was always likely to give its team a decisive advantage and it was the Rhinos six who did enough to allow Sinfield to get away the more influential kicks than counterpart Lee Briers.

That said, the boot of the former Welsh international was responsible for setting up the position for his team’s opening try and he also supplied a wonderful cut-out pass for Joel Monaghan’s score that levelled things up at the break for only the second time in a Grand Final. But, where his team had finished strongly at Wembley to win the Challenge Cup six weeks ago, this time the Rhinos showed them how to take a bow at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.

An early crossfield bomb from Briers, fumbled by Ben Jones-Bishop, gave Warrington early field position. From it, Richard Myler ran laterally, drew the veteran Peacock towards him and then hit the gas to step his way through near the posts. Brett Hodgson, for once upstaged by his opposite number in Zak Hardaker on the night, added the extras.

Leeds changed the momentum of the game when a kick from Danny McGuire – the only change among either team from last week’s semi-finals – enabled Delaney to hold up Chris Riley in-goal for a Wolves dropout.
From their next set, Sinfield looked to have put Hall in at the corner but his pass was ruled forward.

After popping up at the other end to pounce on a dangerous kick from Joel Monaghan, the Rhinos captain then instigated a role-reversal, hanging up a steepling kick that the Aussie winger failed to deal with, allowing Ablett to feed Sinfield for his first ever Grand Final try.

He duly franked that with a superb touchline conversion and, after Ben Harrison was a little unlucky to be penalised for interfering with Kallum Watkins when the centre tried to return to his feet, the Leeds leader edged his team ahead with a 35-metre goal.

A high shot on Delaney by Mike Cooper, who had just been introduced from the Wolves bench by Tony Smith, allowed the Rhinos another opportunity. They took it when McGuire’s pinpoint long pass was well taken by Jones-Bishop, who stepped inside both Riley and Hodgson for a try that took some scoring.

Sinfield hit another perfect conversion from wide out to give his team a cushion, but on a night when it seemed that any mistake from either team was punished, it was the defending champions who were the next culprits.

Ablett spilled a pass from his captain inside the Leeds half. Warrington then forced a repeat set and, spotting that his opponents had failed to number up on their left flank, Briers floated the decisive ball out for Monaghan to stroll over for the easiest try of the night, his 23rd of the campaign.

The boot of Hodgson now came under scrutiny and the former Wests Tigers star was successful with both that conversion and a penalty right on half-time that returned the match to parity.

However, he could not add a further two points to a score by Ryan Atkins that returned the Wolves to the lead just four minutes after the break. That came on the back of a knock-on by Hardaker, although on another occasion Myler’s challenge on the Leeds full-back may have been considered high.

Despite the deficit, the Rhinos self-belief remained in-tact. A Briers high shot on Ablett gave them a foothold in Warrington territory once more and when the industrious Kylie Leuluai charged into a wall of offside defenders, he set up the chance for Shaun Lunt to supply a delightful delayed pass that sent Ablett over for another big-game score.

Sinfield’s conversion nudged his team in front for a second time and the tension was palpable going into the final quarter. However, if the experience of winning games such as this counts for anything, then it must surely be at these precise moments. Leeds searched deep within and again, they found the necessary.

Leuluai’s bellringer on Higham would have helped gee-up his team. Watkins then forced Trent Waterhouse to knock-on, before Sinfield’s 60-metre raking kick turned winger Monaghan. Later in that exit set Harrison fumbled on half-way and the cumulative effect of all that must surely have given the Rhinos the feeling that the game was theirs to win.

And win it they did, courtesy of a try eight minutes from time by their most potent attacker in recent history, Ryan Hall. Burrow, Delaney and Hardaker were all involved in the build-up, but when play was switched left, Ablett did brilliantly to suck in Monaghan and make the England winger’s finish much easier than it otherwise might have been.

It was fitting that Sinfield’s boot secured victory with the conversion, his 21st successful shot at goal in succession during this play-off period. The consensus last year was that no team could win the title from fifth place but, given that they played in one game more this time around – a World Club Challenge win against Manly – you could strongly argue that have bettered that in 2012.

And here’s food for thought. For all their riches and world fame the likes of Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid have all tried, but other than the host football club, no team has enjoyed more wins at Old Trafford in the 21st Century than Leeds Rhinos. The men from Headingley are in a Champions’ League of their own.

You can follow @jonathandoidge on Twitter.

Stobart Super League Grand Final preview

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.