Denman tribute (Part 4) by Jonathan Doidge

Denman tribute (Part 3) by Jonathan Doidge

Denman tribute (Part 2) by Jonathan Doidge

Rhinos edge thrilling finale to complete historic treble

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.

Danny McGuire 1st try

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.

Leeds Champions 2015

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

Wigan Warriors
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

Attendance: 73,512
Referee: Ben Thaler 70/100
Video referees: Richard Silverwood & Phil Bentham
HT: 16-6
Penalties: 5-4
Man of the Match: Danny McGuire – The King has retired, long live the King
Weather: Mild, dry.
Match rating: 5/5

First Utility Super League Grand Final preview

It’s the First Utility Super League Grand Final. The decider. It’s at Old Trafford and it kicks off at 6pm on Saturday. No different to any other year then? Well frankly, yes it is and here’s why.

Saturday marks the end of the Super League careers of three giants of the game. Kevin Sinfield will lead out the Leeds Rhinos for the last time in what is his 528th rugby league appearance. His former Great Britain and England captain Jamie Peacock will lead the pack in what is his 500th and final match, while Kylie Leuluai, an under-the-radar signing from Manly in 2006, will bring the curtain down on his career as one of the most successful imports to have graced the British game.

Standing between them and a fairytale end are Wigan Warriors. The Warriors, beaten finalists last year after the second minute dismissal of Ben Flower, have regrouped well in 2015. Shaun Wane, who himself played for both clubs, is Wigan through and through and his exacting standards appear to have been observed for the most part by his squad, who missed out only narrowly on the League Leaders Shield due to Ryan Hall’s dramatic late score for the Rhinos at Huddersfield two weeks ago.
St Helens v Wigan Warriors
Only points difference separated the two teams over the course of 30 Super League and Super 8s matches, it was that close, while in four previous outings this year the score is 2-2, Leeds winning both their home games and the Warriors scoring both at home and also at Magic weekend.

Brian McDermott’s Leeds, of course, go into the Grand Final aiming for what would be an unprecedented treble for the club, having hammered Hull KR 50-0 in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final in addition to that League Leaders Shield success. That Wembley decider underlined the Rhinos’ enviable ability to get it right on the big occasions, to reserve their most clinical performances for the big stage. Well, sometimes.

Leeds, of course, have never beaten Saturday’s opponents in any final in six previous attempts. Equally as amazing is the fact that these two great and hugely successful clubs have only played each other so few times in deciders.

All of them have come since 1982. The Rhinos probably came as close to winning any of them in the inaugural Grand Final of 1998, going down 10-4 as Jason Robinson scored the decisive try, while in their only other meeting at Old Trafford, they came out on the end of a humiliating Premiership Final defeat by a record score of 69-12. History, therefore, is very much against the Rhinos, but there is a bigger picture with this Leeds side.

They will try – and rightly so – to play without emotion in this game. That will be difficult, but playing ‘big game football’ with an extra dollop of emotion won’t do any of them any harm as they try to find a way to beat the Warriors. They are renowned for rewriting history, which they are going to need to do on Saturday.
Think of 2011 and 2012, when they did what seemed impossible, first winning the trophy from fifth place and then, astonishingly, repeating the feat 12 months later.

This Leeds side is filled with record breakers. Danny McGuire – Super League’s all-time leading tryscorer; Kevin Sinfield, the competition’s all-time leading appearance holder, goalkicker and points scorer; Tom Briscoe, scorer of a record five tries in a Wembley final; Adam Cuthbertson with a record number of offloads in a season for any player; the team itself with its record number of Grand Final wins and record winning margin at Wembley.

After over a decade of success, the club now finally has a Man of Steel in fullback Zak Hardaker, while Ryan Hall remains as potent-a-threat as there is out wide and in Joel Moon and Kallum Watkins, they have arguably the best centre pairing in the Northern Hemisphere. And we haven’t even mentioned previous Old Trafford match winners Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, or Carl Ablett!

They should, and will, have immense respect for their opponents, who feel that they have unfinished business in Manchester after last year’s reverse. If Flower is able to keep a lid on things – and Leeds are sure to test his mettle early – then that will help their cause. He has learned a lot in the past 52 weeks.

Then there is Sean O’Loughlin, Warriors talisman and an absolute trojan in the engine room, ready to inspire his team to one more huge effort. His role takes on even greater significance in that his presence allows England half-back Matty Smith more freedom to play his own game too.

Stand-off George Williams is a precocious talent. The apprentice, up against the master Sinfield, and one who despite suggestions to the contrary from his coach, is felt by many to be in pole position for the no.6 shirt for England in their forthcoming series with New Zealand.

Micky McIlorum, a Leeds lad who missed last year’s defeat due to a fractured cheekbone, is an uncompromising hooker who will try to get the Rhinos off their game, while the Warriors also have some fantastic attacking threat through wingers Joe Burgess and Dom Manfredi – the latter showing such good form that he has kept England winger Josh Charnley out of the final line-up.

Matty Bowen – the former Queensland fullback – is another to be turning out for the final time and he showed against the Rhinos at the DW Stadium earlier in the season just how dangerous he is with ball-in-hand if allowed any space.

The physicality and structure of Wigan against the big-game know-how, offloading forwards and silky-skilled three-quarters of the Rhinos. It promises to be a titanic duel between the two best teams in the competition this year. There will be heroes, maybe villains, and there will be a moment – one moment out of 80 lung-bursting minutes – where someone will come up with the vital score that etches their name into rugby league history for all time.

And it isn’t just the men wearing cherry-and-white who are warriors. Every manjack who steps out on the field, puts their body on the line, gives every last breath, is fit for that title.

History is with Wigan. Sentiment is with Leeds. Which will the Gods of rugby league favour? One thing is certain. One way or another, come 8pm on Saturday there won’t be a dry eye in the house.