IN TERMS of drama and excitement, it’s doubtful if any rugby game this year could match last week’s Super-8s classic between Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants.
Rhinos didn’t win it on the bell, they actually snatched victory a second or two after the hooter had sounded in what was the greatest finish to a televised match since St Helens’ famous ‘Wide to West’ win over Bradford Bulls in 2000.
Last week’s game had more riding on it, of course. Leeds not only grabbed the win from Huddersfield’s grasp, they also left Wigan Warriors shattered, just as their league leaders’ party was about to start.
Rugby league needs to be good at the moment because, whether anyone in the sport will admit it or not, it is being measured against the rival code’s showpiece.
These are supposed to be enlightened times, with a century of animosity between the two games of rugby forgiven and forgotten, but clearly that is not the case. The vitriol directed at Sam Burgess, the Dewsbury-born league convert drafted into England’s union World Cup squad, by some in the national media is evidence of that.
At least one national newspaper writer blamed Burgess for England’s defeat to Wales last weekend, in a piece which looked suspiciously like it had been written before the game and which ignored the fact they had been leading when the ex-Bradford Bulls and South Sydney man was taken off.
There’s no disputing the fact union is the bigger game. League could not – and probably wouldn’t want to – stage a tournament like the current world cup, which is a truly global event, but one which – due to ludicrous ticket prices – is out of the reach of many fans.
There’s an argument for saying league sells itself short, by staging major events in small venues and with a policy of almost giving away tickets in a bid to draw the crowds in, but that said, it is a family-oriented sport, which does offer fantastic value for money.
Due to all the hype, which is possibly out of proportion to the level of interest among the general public, rugby is big at the moment and league can benefit from that. Any casual fans tuning into Sky last Friday will have been impressed by the quality of athleticism and skill on show and obviously bowled over by the dramatic finale.
The RFL’s idea of having a helicopter stationed mid-way between Huddersfield and Wigan, ready to fly the league leaders’ shield to whoever came out on top, was a publicity stunt, but one which really worked and added to a memorable night.
The challenge now is to continue the momentum build up last week into the semi-finals, Grand Final and beyond. The signs for that are positive, with two intriguing semi-finals to come over the next two days.
It’s how the main participants last week react which will decide the destiny of the Super League trophy. Can Huddersfield pick themselves off the floor and get over the top of Wigan at DW Stadium tonight?
If they tackle like they did last week – possibly the best defensive performance in Super League this year – they certainly can, though the suspicion remains they can’t handle the really big occasion.
With home advantage, Wigan should come out on top on that one, but all four teams left in the race have a genuine chance of taking the chequered flag. Saints will fancy their prospects at Headingley, a month after winning there in the Super-8s.
They have been building their form over the past four weeks, but Rhinos have beaten them three times this season and will win if they play well, despite a mounting injury list.
Last week’s victory was even more of a high, due to its last-gasp nature, than the Challenge Cup final and Rhinos reacted badly to that, falling into a hole and losing their next three games.
If there’s a repeat, it will be season over, but last week marked a return to form and Leeds have plenty of reasons to play well.
Tomorrow will be the final home appearance for Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai and the treble is very much on the cards.