THE 2006 season was a period of change for Leeds Rhinos off the field – and there were fears the team was running out of steam on it.
A major redevelopment of Headingley Carnegie Stadium took place with the old, uncovered, Eastern Terrace being flattened and replaced by the Carnegie Stand.
That was opened on September 1, 2006, when Rhinos celebrated by thrashing Warrington Wolves 54-16.
There wasn’t a huge amount else to cheer during a campaign when Rhinos failed to reach a major final and slipped a place in the league table to third, a massive 10 points behind leaders and eventual champions St Helens.
In many ways, the season was similar to Rhinos’ 2014 campaign, though they finished it empty-handed.
Hopes of a Challenge Cup final appearance, at Twickenham, were dashed at the semi-final stage when Leeds suffered a shock 30-12 defeat to unfancied Huddersfield Giants at Odsal. Rhinos fans were so confident of victory many of them had bought tickets for the final in advance and there were reports of Leeds supporters out-numbering Huddersfield’s following at the home of English rugby union.
Rhinos also suffered an unexpected defeat in the play-offs, when Warrington gained revenge for their heavy beating exactly three weeks earlier by snatching an 18-17 victory thanks to Lee Briers’ late drop goal. For Willie Poching – the former Samoa international who had joined Leeds from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats ahead of the 2002 season – that defeat brought the curtain down on his playing career.
“I remember being on the sidelines watching,” Poching said. “I was doing some work for Radio Leeds, because I was injured. I had hurt my knee and I had a slight chance of returning for the Grand Final, if we got there. Getting knocked out that night was the end of my playing career and it was a horrible way to finish.”
Poching, one of Rhinos’ most versatile and popular players at the time, had signed a contract extension just a few weeks earlier, but he recalled: “When I did that I was 100 per cent sure I was going to be able to give it everything I had. But as you age, sometimes you have the realisation that mentally and physically you are not able to do it any more. That’s what happened.
“I was fine for most of 2006 and I was really enjoying it, but towards the back end of the year it became very hard to physically keep going. I could picture myself in 12 months’ time not being able to perform well enough to justify being in the team.
“Fortunately Gary Hetherington and Tony Smith (Rhinos’ chief executive and team boss) gave me the chance to join the coaching staff and that made retirement easier, because it is scary having to think about finishing. I grabbed it with both hands and I have no regrets at all.”
Rhinos began 2006 well, winning eight of their opening nine matches and they enjoyed an eight-game winning streak from May to July, but that was followed by five straight losses and the season fizzled out as Leeds were beaten in seven of their final 10 fixtures.
There were some good moments though, most notably in May when Bradford Bulls were embarrassed 30-0 on their own turf – the first time they had failed to score against Leeds at Odsal. Poching, who crossed for Rhinos’ final try, recalls that night fondly. He said: “It was sort of the start of a downward spiral for them and an upward curve for us, but at that time it was a big game.
“Going to Bradford you’d drive up the M606 and see all the fans heading for the ground, it was always packed – there was the loud music going on and it was a great atmosphere.
“Not long before that night they had done a number on us at Headingley, but that night we put a really good performance in against them. We started off with a lot of promise that year, but unfortunately it didn’t finish the way we planned.”
Despite the disappointing finish to the season and his playing days Poching – who will join Hull KR next month as assistant-coach after leaving a similar role at Warrington Wolves – looks back fondly on his time as a Rhino.
“I was no spring chicken when I came to Leeds,” he said. “I was 26 or 27, but I had never played in a play-off game or a big semi-final or final. I went to Leeds to do that. In my first year we reached the Challenge Cup semi-final and we got to the final the year after that and the Grand Final in 2004 and 2005.
“We had a young team – players like Chev (Walker), Calders (Mark Calderwood), Rob (Burrow), Danny Mags (McGuire) and Ryan Bailey and I knew if they could stay together they would be successful.
“To be part of the start of that and to be playing alongside such good players, it was the most rewarding part of my playing career.
“I look back with nothing but fondness and great memories.”
Key player of 2006: Scott Donald
AUSSIE SCOTT Donald joined Leeds Rhinos on a wing and a prayer ahead of the 2006 season.
Then 25, the Townsville-born flier had a reputation in Australia’s NRL as a formidable try scorer, but was largely unknown in England.
And he had big shoes to fill, taking over from two prolific wing men in Mark Calderwood, who had joined Wigan Warriors, and Bradford Bulls recruit Marcus Bai.
Donald played for North Queensland Cowboys, Parramatta Eels and Manly Sea Eagles (where he touched down 63 times in 87 appearances) before making a try-scoring debut for Leeds against Huddersfield in the opening game of the 2006 campaign. Donald was Leeds’ second-highest try scorer that term, with 23 in 33 appearances.
In total, Donald scored 92 tries in 145 senior games in blue and amber, his most memorable coming in the 2007 Grand Final, against St Helens. Brent Webb and Keith Senior combined to send Donald on a sprint down the right-hand touchline and, with Paul Wellens to beat, the winger dummied to Webb and then put the hammer down to cross at the corner for a try which broke Saints’ spirits.
The following year he scored what has been described as one of the finest tries ever seen at Headingley Carnegie, as Leeds came from 18-0 down to beat Hull 38-22.
From a re-start following a Leeds try Donald displayed great speed and footwork to cut infield and then back to his wing on a weaving, length of the field run which left defenders trailing in his wake.
Named in the 2008 Super League Dream Team, Donald eventually decided to call it a day at the end of the 2010 season, which was his most disappointing for Leeds, producing just 10 tries from 19 appearances.
Donald played in Leeds’ 2007, 2008 and 2009 Grand Final victories and registered Rhinos’ lone touchdown in the 2008 World Club Challenge conquering of Melbourne Storm. He returned to Australia to take up a job in law enforcement, and featured for Australia in last year’s Police World Cup final at Headingley.
THE 2006 season in numbers:
1: Substitute appearance made by Nathan McAvoy during his only season at Leeds
3: Rhinos’ position in the Super League table
5: Successive defeats suffered from July 16 to August 11, as Rhinos lost to Castleford Tigers, St Helens, Huddersfield Giants (in a Challenge Cup semi-final), Hull and Wigan
9: Players made their debut – Scott Donald, Shane Millard, Mark O’Neill, Ian Kirke, Nathan McAvoy, Danny Williams, Jordan Tansey, Jamie Thackray, Clinton Toopi
27: Touchdowns by top try scorer Danny McGuire
96: Unanswered points scored in successive games in May – a 66-0 Challenge Cup win over Rochdale Hornets and 30-0 Super League victory at Bradford Bulls
106: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield
223: Points scored by Kevin Sinfield, including three tries and one drop goal
543: Points conceded by the Rhinos in the regular season
14,125: Average attendance at Headingley