TREBLE-WINNERS Leeds Rhinos signed off from the greatest season in their history with a defeat last night, but rugby league was the winner.
That’s an awful cliche, but true in this case after a night which will be remembered for years.
Rhinos, who led going into the final quarter, tired late on to lose 34-16, but gave an excellent account of themselves in a hugely entertaining clash with the world’s best team.
There were numerous errors, but that was because both sides threw the ball around and though the Kiwis’ class eventually told, Rhinos deserved their ovation at the end from the season’s-best crowd of 20,158.
That was despite Leeds fielding a below-strength team and shows what can be achieved with good marketing.
Obviously circumstances worked very much in their favour, but Rhinos’ backroom staff deserve huge credit for creating an event.
The absence of two of Rhinos’ three retiring legends didn’t detract from that. Jamie Peacock, who only returned from holiday yesterday, was never going to play, but Sinfield was ruled out due to a hand injury suffered in the Grand Final two weeks ago.
That was actually a good thing, as it meant they both bowed out on the highest of highs, at Old Trafford – and Sinfield’s final points for Leeds secured the treble.
Sinfield, Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, who did play, all received a presentation after the final whistle.
It was also an emotional occasion for Adrian Morley, who appeared as a guest player 15 years after his final competitive appearance for Leeds and Ali Lauitiiti, three years on from his farewell.
Ryan Bailey and Keith Senior, two other members of the golden generation, were water carriers and there was a presentation to 92-year-old Billy Watts, who has retired as timekeeper after a lifetime’s service to the club.
Rhinos’ team was as advertised. All 19 – both sides used six substitutes – had made at least one Super League appearance this year, though Leeds were missing eight of their Grand Final line-up.
Zak Hardaker, Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall are all due to play for England against France today, Sinfield, Carl Ablett and Brett Delaney are all injured, Rob Burrow was unavailable and Peacock has retired.
Including a couple of guest players meant Rhinos did not have to dip into the academy to raise a team, but it was a tremendous opportunity for the youngsters who did play.
Full-back Ashton Golding is tipped for a big future and he looked the part with an outstanding man of the match display.
He was safe under the high ball, made some exciting breaks and contributed to Leeds’ final try.
His best moment came at the start of the second half, when he produced a magnificent try-saving tackle to deny Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Jordan Lilley, playing at scrum-half after filling in as a hooker towards the end of the season, also did a good job and Robbie Ward, the hooker who has not been offered a contract for next year, put himself in the shop window.
But last night wasn’t so much about the game as the occasion. It ended with the Kiwis performing a haka for the South Stand, led by Leuluai and Lauitiiti.
The Kiwis were given the sort of workout they’d want just over a week out from the first Test against England.
They had the first chance, after eight minutes, when Kevin Proctor spilled the ball over the line from Tuimola Lolohea’s grubber.
Moments later Leuluai stormed over at the other end, but referee Richard Silverwood ruled Joel Moon’s pass forward, which was a tough call.
Rhinos continually tested the Kiwis’ defence and Ward was pulled down in a one-on-one tackle by Tuivasa-Sheck.
The Kiwi full-back is rated as one of the best players in the world and he had to be on his toes, making a similar tackle to halt Golding, who also sent Tom Briscoe on a run.
Tuivasa-Sheck was on the receiving end in the set leading up to Proctor’s chance, when he was smashed by Jimmy Keinhorst.
The German international, playing in the centres last night, had a strong year once he got an opportunity and his form, particularly in the final few games, must have given Rhinos’ coaching staff food for thought.
Joel Moon was impressive all year, but he is somebody else who really hit top gear at the business end, in the games that mattered. He was a fitting first try scorer, on 26 minutes. Danny McGuire, who captained Leeds, kicked through on the last, Moon slid through, picked the ball up on his knees and reached over.
Lilley landed the extras, but the Kiwis led at the break thanks to two tries in the final six minutes of the half.
Winger Jason Nightingale got the first, from a pass by Jordan Kahu, who turned scorer for the second.
That came from a dummy and break out of acting-half by Isaac Luke, Rhinos being disrupted by a change which saw Anthony Mullally replaced by Jordan Baldwinson.
Mullally, signed for next season from Huddersfield Giants, came off the bench just six minutes earlier for his first Leeds appearance, but picked up a knock.
In between the tries, Kahu was held up over the line by Ash Handley and Ward. Golding’s tackle on Tuivasa-Sheck and an equally impressive effort by McGuire to halt Lolohea kept Rhinos in touch early in the second half and they went back in front with 26 left.
Ward and McGuire worked the ball to Lilley and he did brilliantly to feed Moon, who cut inside for his second try. Lilley’s touchline conversion made it 12-10.
Back-to-back tries around the hour mark finally swung the game the Kiwis’ way, Kodi Nikorima providing the pass which sent Jesse Bromwich over and then beginning a move which led to Dean Whare scoring.
Tuivasa-Sheck added a touchdown on 66 to make it 24-12, but Leeds rallied when McGuire’s kick was picked up by Golding and scooped on to Lauitiiti.
His aged legs couldn’t go the distance, but he was smart enough to sling out a long pass to Briscoe, who scored too far out for Lilley to convert.
New Zealand added late tries through Nikorima and Tuivasa-Sheck, the latter after Silverwood somehow managed to miss the season’s most obvious obstruction.
Luke kicked one conversion for the Kiwis and Lolohea added two after he went off.
The penalty count finished 8-6 to New Zealand.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding, Briscoe, Keinhorst, Moon, Handley, McGuire, Lilley, Leuluai, R Ward, Morley, Lauitiiti, Walters, Cuthbertson. Subs: Garbutt, Mullally, Singleton, Achurch, Mulhern, Baldwinson.
New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck, Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Dowall, Hiku, Lolohea, Bromwich, Luke, Matulino, Proctor, Harris, Taupau. Subs: Nikorima, Blair, Moa, Taukeiaho, Glenn, Brown.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield).