RUGBY LEAGUE supposedly switched to a summer season in 1996, but five years ago the Super League campaign began in a January snowstorm.
That was bizarre enough, but the first game of the season was actually a round four fixture.
Coach Brian McClennan’s Leeds Rhinos kicked-off a week earlier than most of their rivals so they could play that season’s World Club Challenge showdown against Melbourne Storm without disrupting the weekly schedule.
The trip to Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground was therefore brought forward three weeks and played in appropriately arctic conditions – on a snow-covered pitch – on January 29. In a typically confusing rugby league development, Wigan Warriors’ round three clash with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats was brought forward to the following day, so rounds four and three began before round one.
It proved to be an eventful opening to a season during which Rhinos failed to live up to expectations. Crusaders were making their debut in north Wales after moving from Bridgend over the off-season.
Coach Brian Noble’s squad was only put together at the last minute, but a full-house of 10,334 turned up for the visit of the reigning champions and the home team rose to the occasion. Leeds were rated as 33-1 on to win the game, but had a shock when Michael Witt stroked over a fourth minute penalty to give the Welsh outfit the lead.
Keith Senior made a vital tackle to keep Rocky Trimarchi out before Rhinos went ahead on 19 minutes when Scott Donald touched down from debutant Brett Delaney’s grubber kick. Kevin Sinfield kicked the first of his five goals, but Crusaders levelled through Gareth Raynor, whose try made it 6-6 at the break.
Rhinos didn’t regain the lead until 15 minutes from time, when Kallum Watkins and Delaney carved out an opening for Danny McGuire, who raced 80 metres to score. Three minutes later McGuire sent Ali Lauitiiti over and then Sinfield and Delaney took advantage of a tiring defence to cross before Lauitiiti’s second touchdown completed a flattering 34-6 scoreline for the visitors.