Unstoppable: Rhinos’ 2004 Grand Final success crowned an amazing season for the club and former player Richie Mathers. Peter Smith spoke to him.
IT WAS the year Leeds Rhinos went from being rugby league’s great underachievers to the top side in the game.
At the start of 2004 Leeds had been crowned champions only three times in their history and of the 26 players who featured in first team action for Rhinos 10 years ago, only Gary Connolly and David Furner had been born at the time of the club’s previous title triumph, way back in 1972.
There were signs Leeds might be on the verge of big things the previous year, when they finished second in the Super League table and were Challenge Cup final runners-up, but nobody fully appreciated what a huge impact incoming team boss Tony Smith was to have on the club, not just that season, but for its long-term future.
“I was talking to Jamie Jones-Buchanan about it the other day and I believe in 2004 and 2005 we played a better brand of rugby than anyone has played before or since,” recalled Richard Mathers, who was full-back for Rhinos when they ended three decades of hurt by beating Bradford Bulls in the Grand Final 10 years ago on Thursday. “We just blew teams away, it was brilliant. We were all young, hungry and fit and there were some magical occasions, like beating Bradford twice in the league. We got beaten by them in the first round of the play-offs and then we had to play Wigan, who beat us at exactly the same stage the year before. We blew them away and then we were in the Grand Final.”
Bulls went into the title decider as favourites in many pundits’ eyes, despite having Leeds’ dominance in the league. Bradford were the defending champions, but had finished in second spot, nine points behind Rhinos. Leeds lost just twice in the league all season – a 56-10 drubbing at St Helens in April and 26-22 loss away to Wigan Warriors two months later. They also drew twice – at London Broncos and Wigan – and won their other 24 league fixtures, scoring 1,047 and conceding just 443.
Crowds at Headingley were up by more than 3,000 to an average of 16,608 and confidence in the camp was high, despite the home play-offs loss to Bradford which led Leeds’ critics to label them as “big-game chokers”. Mathers remembers the mood of confidence in the camp ahead of the title-decider. He said: “We were on a roll then and I remember us going to have a look around Old Trafford in the week before, by ourselves with no press or anything like that, just to have a look at the surroundings. It was brilliant that week, we really enjoyed it. There was no angst, just a quiet confidence among the group.”
Of the Grand Final itself, Mathers recalled: “The atmosphere was fantastic, but I remember how calm everybody was, especially Kev [Sinfield] and Danny [McGuire]. Their kicking game was brilliant, putting the ball behind Lesley Vainikolo. Chev [Walker] and Calders [Mark Calderwood] terrorised him and when Danny scored the try that clinched it, it was up there as one of the most memorable moments of my career.
“It was sheer relief, knowing we had the game won. It was brilliant, it meant we could really enjoy the last few minutes. I remember when the hooter went we were all jumping around and I ran to Danny and before I get there he fell on the ground with cramp!”
The Old Trafford triumph, on Saturday, October 16, was the culmination of a journey which began almost a year earlier, when Tony Smith took his first training session as coach. But Mathers said: “I am always quick to give praise to Daryl [previous coach Daryl Powell], because the story starts with him and [chief executive] Gary Hetherington’s foresight. For a club of Leeds’ magnitude, to move some of the old guard on and give the younger lads a chance was a big decision and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Daryl, then Tony polished the diamond. Some of the things we were doing – like passing and catching – I had been doing at East Leeds under-nines, but Tony really focused on detail and everyone was on the same footing. A prime example was me and Gary Connolly – whoever was doing the best was going to be in the team, regardless of if he was 19 or 30. It was crazy, but the longer the season went on, the more confident we got.”
Mathers made most tackle-busts (78) and carries (438) for Leeds in 2004, despite not being first-choice at the start of the campaign.
He recalled: “I played 14 games in 2003. Gary played one league game and one Cup game and then hurt his ankle and I played every game after that. When Tony came in he was honest and he said Gaz was going to start. I played a couple of games in the 21s before Gaz got injured and I can remember talking to Tony in the corridor at [Rhinos’ training base in] Kirkstall. Tony said ‘you’re going to start this week, the shirt’s yours as long as you deserve it’. it’s up to you how long you have it.”