FAIRYTALES DO happen. No rugby league team, possibly no team in any sport, has ever had a season like Leeds Rhinos’ 2015 campaign.
No rugby league team, possibly no team in any sport, has ever had a season like Leeds Rhinos’ 2015 campaign.
Three of the most successful influential and successful players in the club’s history retiring at the same time is surely unique.
For them to go out on the back of a championship triumph, which completed a clean sweep of trophies, was the stuff dreams are made of.
Rhinos president Harry Jepson OBE summed it up best in the post-match celebrations, when he said: “This is the greatest night in this great club’s history.”
Rhinos are champions for the seventh time in 11 seasons following a remarkable 22-20 win over Wigan Warriors in a magnificent First Utility Super League Grand Final, probably the best showpiece staged at Old Trafford.
That came exactly six weeks after they had demolished Hull KR in the Challenge Cup final and only 15 days on from the last-gasp win at Huddersfield Giants which secured the league leaders’ shield.
Rhinos are the third team in the Super League era to complete such a treble, after Bradford Bulls in 2003 and St Helens three years later.
Those clubs may disagree, but Rhinos’ grand slam was the most impressive. The competition has been stronger this year, with at least four and maybe up to half a dozen clubs now being capable of winning silverware.
Leeds also did it in the face of considerable adversity, having lost five players to long-term injuries.
Paul Aiton was one of Leeds’ most consistent players before suffering a broken arm a couple of weeks before the Challenge Cup final and to achieve what they have without a specialist hooker is a fantastic feat.
Jamie Peacock has played in two of the three teams to have achieved the treble. Leeds’ best-ever signing – and one of the finest players to the club has had – bowed out on a real high.
He played 75 of the 80 minutes, never taking a backwards step and his sheer will to win typified Leeds’ never-say-die spirit.
Rhinos led 16-6 at the break, but looked out on their feet when Wigan scored quick-fire tries to go ahead soon after half-time and extended their lead to four points at the end of the third quarter.
It was a familiar story, Leeds’ tank has seemed empty at the same stage in each of their crucial last three games, but somehow, on every occasion, they found a way to win.
Kevin Sinfield is rugby league’s greatest captain and probably now the finest player in the Leeds’ 125-year history.
He was everything expected of him, calm, brave – defying a hand injury and facial wound – and composed and his game management in the final quarter was top class.
Once Leeds had gone ahead, Wigan, though never out of it until the final whistle, rarely threatened to pull the game from the fire.
Fittingly, Sinfield’s third conversion won the game. It was his 1,792nd goal for Leeds, in his 521st appearance.
That’s exactly 500 more than Josh Walters has played for Rhinos. The 21-year-old rugby union convert, who used to have a part-time job working in the club shop, was the final’s unlikely hero.
Not expected to play, he replaced Jordan Lilley – an unused substitute last week – on the bench in the only change to the 17 which faced St Helens in the semi-final.
Walters was only on for six minutes before a leg injury forced him off, but he made a decisive impact.
Leeds were trailing 20-16 when Danny McGuire hoisted a kick towards Dominic Manfredi. The Wigan man lost it straight to an alert Joel Moon, who shipped the ball on to Jimmy Keinhorst, who in turn put Walters over.
It was Walters’ first appearance since the home defeat to Castleford Tigers more than three weeks earlier and his play-off debut.
Keinhorst was another good story in a game packed with them. He was left out of the Wembley team and suffered a serious eye injury in the next match, only got into the side because of a season-ending injury to Stevie Ward, but produced a very solid stint in the final half an hour.
Also playing his final game was prop Kylie Leuluai, Leeds’ most successful import. He was typically tough off the bench.
McGuire, along with Sinfield and Rob Burrow, has featured in all Rhinos’ seven Grand Final wins. Before this year he had never won the Lance Todd trophy as man of the match, but a fine all-round performance set the record straight.
McGuire scored two tries and was involved in both of the others, though inadvertently in the case of Moon’s 26th minute touchdown which gave Leeds the lead for the first time.
That was the final’s big moment of controversy. He dropped the ball, Zak Hardaker picked up, did really well to stay in play and turned it inside for Moon to cross. Referee Ben Thaler handed the decision on as a try and, after an age, video assistants Richard Silverwood and Phil Bentham gave the green light. Had Thaler said no try, that decision would probably also have stood.
Thaler did a good job, awarding only nine penalties – five of them to Leeds – and refereeing in an efficient, unfussy style.
He seems to have arrived to stay as the British game’s top official.
Wigan struck first when Matty Smith sent Liam Farrell, who had a fine game, tearing away and his pass was finished by Joe Burgess.
But Smith dropped the re-start and, on the final play of the subsequent set, Sinfield’s perfect grubber was read telepathically by McGuire.
After Moon’s try, McGuire gave Tom Briscoe a run, he drew the defence and supplied Kallum Watkins and the centre’s pass was finished by McGuire, Sinfield converting Leeds’ first and third tries.
After the break Manfredi picked Ryan Hall’s pocket from Sean O’Loughlin’s kick, then Matty Bowen – Wigan’s and possibly the game’s best player – stepped through for a brilliant solo try, landing his third conversion and then a penalty.
There were two key moments after that – when Larne Patrick knocked on over the line and when Manfredi spilled Joel Tomkins’ pass.
A try then would probably have finished Leeds, but somehow, from somewhere they found enough energy to make this the best season in the club’s history.
It was exactly the sort of Grand Final the sport needed, played in front of the event’s biggest crowd and best atmosphere.
Wigan were very good, particularly in the third quarter and would have beaten most other teams, but Rhinos deserve their glory, on the 80 minutes and the season as a whole.