THE set is complete and a place in Leeds Rhinos’ history assured.
The Tetley’s Challenge Cup, the trophy the club has craved for so long, was finally added to the Headingley Carnegie honour roll at the end of a campaign in which they always seemed to hold an upper hand.
Rhinos deserve to be 2014 Challenge Cup champions, having beaten three of their top-five Super League rivals en route, but final opponents Castleford Tigers could leave Wembley with heads held high.
Tigers eliminated the other member of the leading quintet during their march to the arch and they eventually made a contest of the final, despite being second-best for most of what was a good, if not classic, game.
Cas coach Daryl Powell’s decision not to select prop Garreth Carvell meant there were no previous Cup winners in Tigers’ ranks and only two players with final experience.
Carvell might not have made a huge difference, but Cas took 40 minutes to get into the game and by the time they settled down and began to play, they were running low on energy.
Crucially for the spectacle, if not the final result, Cas scored first after half-time and they were only six points adrift from the 46th to the 67th minutes, before Ryan Hall’s second touchdown and Kevin Sinfield’s third conversion, which went over off both posts, ensured it would be Rhinos’ day.
Leeds – who have now won the Challenge Cup 12 times – did a good job on all Tigers’ dangermen. Stand-off Marc Sneyd had a difficult start to the game and was replaced by Jamie Ellis, who looked a lot more assured, midway through the first half, though he had a better stint when he returned.
Rhinos kept winger Justin Carney in check and his only significant contribution, after getting over the line early on when referee Phil Bentham had already blown for a Tigers penalty, was a dangerous tackle on Kallum Watkins.
That will be a concern considering it was his first game back from a ban for a similar offence which kept him out of the semi-final and the Aussie obviously needs to work on his tackling technique. Up front, Tigers had a good go and try scorer Oliver Holmes was a stand-out, but – hard as props Andy Lynch and Craig Huby, playing just 13 days after suffering a dislocated elbow, tried – Leeds held the upper hand.
There were echoes of previous Challenge Cup glories in Leeds’ 23-10 triumph.
Ryan Hall became the first winger to be named Lance Todd Trophy man of the match winner since Leroy Rivett in Rhinos’ previous Wembley success, back in 1999.
And as in the win before that, 36 years ago, victory was finally assured by a drop goal, Danny McGuire landing a one-pointer to open a three-score gap with four minutes left.
A couple of times Leeds seemed to have set for it, only for Sinfield to turn the ball inside. On this occasion McGuire took the pass and kept his nerve to add to an earlier touchdown.
It was a remarkable achievement by the No 6, who had suffered severe rib damage – and what was initially feared to be an injured lung – a few minutes earlier, but managed to play on.
McGuire polled 12 votes for man of the match, while Rob Burrow – who had a dynamic game out of dummy-half – received four and Sinfield and Zak Hardaker – who was outstanding under the high ball and made some good runs from full-back – got one each.
It was this reporter who nominated the Leeds captain, for his game management, some outstanding defence and excellent goal kicking.
McGuire, who set up Hall’s first touchdown with a brilliant blindside pass, would have been a worthy winner, but the winger’s finishing prowess was world class, combining strength, skill and power.
Leeds had failed to perform in their six Cup final defeats between 1999 and 2014, but on this occasion they got it right, despite a nervy second half.
The game plan was similar to the one which overcame Warrington Wolves in the semi-final. Leeds were patient and composed, played the game at their tempo and – thanks to excellent kicking – in the right areas of the field.
The forwards laid the platform, the halves made use of the space that provided and they got good ball to the outside-backs, who did the flashy stuff.
Leeds attacked Tigers’ right with notable success, though the opening try came on the other flank, Tom Briscoe crossing inside four minutes after Sinfield, Hardaker and Watkins had handled. Cas got back in the game on 13 with a well-crafted try when Liam Finn, who was inventive throughout, kicked ahead and Daryl Clark touched down, though Sneyd was unable to convert.
On 18 Burrow hoisted a bomb and McGuire picked Luke Dorn’s pocked to go over, Sinfield’s second goal making it 12-4.
And it was 16-4 at the interval after Hall barged over the top of Kirk Dixon and planted the ball down one-handed from McGuire’s pass. There was maybe a forward pass in the build-up, but Cas’ second-half try was a cracker.
Lee Jewitt made an initial break and then Holmes finished in style from Michael Shenton’s pass, Finn converting.
Cas had a couple of half-chances after that, most notably a chip and chase by Finn which Sinfield tidied up, but Hall’s second try with 13 left dashed their hopes.
Paul Aiton worked a one-two with Jamie Peacock and fed WBW, who got over the top of Finn, Jake Webster and Weller Hauraki.
Sinfield’s goal made it 22-10, though the celebrations did not really begin until McGuire’s 76th minute kick. Cas will be better for the experience and have made huge strides this year, but it is impossible to begrudge Leeds their victory after so much Cup heartbreak.
Players including Sinfield, Burrow, Peacock, McGuire, Ryan Bailey and Jamie Jones-Buchanan have sealed their place as club legends and greats of the modern era.
The penalty count finished four-three in Tigers’ favour (two-one in the first half).