DURING FOUR seasons under Tony Smith’s coaching Leeds Rhinos were transformed from nearly-men to champions.
Smith’s reign began a period of unprecedented success for the Headingley club and he bowed out in record-breaking fashion at the end of 2007.
Grand Final success that year made Smith the first Leeds coach to mastermind two Championship triumphs – and also the first to win the title after not finishing top of the table.
Rhinos were second-best to eventual league leaders St Helens for much of the year, dropping as low as fifth at one stage early in the season and only topping the table at the end of three rounds, the latest of those being in May.
They finished in runners-up spot on the league ladder, a point behind Saints, but from August onwards Leeds looked like the team with momentum behind them.
The turning point was at Harlequins on August 5 when – against a home side coached by Brian McDermott – Rhinos clicked into gear to run in 48 second-half points, after trailing 16-6 at the interval.
A home defeat to Hull the following month ended Rhinos’ hopes of topping the table, but they went into the title decider in confident mood despite losing 10-8 at Knowsley Road in a classic qualifying semi-final.
In one of the most physically punishing games of the summer era both teams hammered each other for 80 minutes, Saints squeezing into the final thanks to three successful kicks from Matty Smith, against two by Kevin Sinfield, after the sides scored a try each. Leeds bounced back to thrash Wigan Warriors 36-6 in the final eliminator, setting up a memorable evening at Old Trafford.
Smith announced in March he would leave at the end of the year to take up a full-time post as Great Britain coach, so the 33-6 Grand Final drubbing of Saints was the perfect way to bow out.
“Personally, it was a fairytale, the way it all ended,” Smith recalled. “The way we put it together and timed our run perfectly, it was quite a remarkable ending to a season.
“It was how you want to peak at the right time and fortunately we had the players capable of doing that. As they showed over the next few years I think they learned a lot from 2007 about how to do that, through the experience they gained that year – though I may be being a bit over-presumptuous saying that.
“But the calibre of player we had made it all a reality and I am very grateful for the ending I had there.”
Smith added: “I enjoyed all my time at the Rhinos. I was ready for another challenge, to go and become Great Britain coach, but to finish on such a great note, I am still grateful to all the players for their efforts.
“The Grand Final, some of it is a bit of a blur because it was such a surreal feeling, all the emotions of leaving a club where I’d spent four years and enjoyed my time so much, but I remember it was a really strong second stanza, after we laid some foundations in the first half. I was honoured to be part of a team capable of doing that and it was a very special feeling.” Now boss at Warrington Wolves, Smith – who also guided Leeds to top spot in 2004 and both major finals, plus a World Club Challenge success, in 2005 – is regarded by many as probably the club’s finest-ever coach.
Assessing his time in charge, he said: “I like to think I left the club in a healthier position than when I started. That is always an ambition for any coach and I like to think I played a role in that.
“But by no means would I take away from the efforts of the many, many people it takes to build a successful club. My predecessors were building in that direction and I will always be grateful for their input. I was fortunate to be able to follow their investment.
“2004 was special because it was 32 years since the club had won the title. To be able to finish off with two titles – and also to reach three Grand Finals and a Challenge Cup final and to win the World Club Challenge – I feel honoured to have been part of that.
“More importantly than trophies, I also made some very good friends and friendships which continue to this day and will do for years to come.”
Apart from the Old Trafford victory, 2007 was illuminated by many memorable moments – the most famous being Leeds’ 42-38 win over Bradford Bulls in the final match of Super League’s first Magic Weekend.
Rhinos were trailing by two points with seconds left when they were incorrectly awarded a penalty on the advice of video official Ashley Klein.
Kevin Sinfield’s kick struck the crossbar and rebounded to Jordan Tansey, who joyfully touched down. It was clear from television replays Tansey had run from an offside position, but referee Steve Ganson awarded the try without asking for Klein’s input and Leeds took the win, sparking a furious reaction from Bulls who went as far as asking Rhinos’ management to hand over the two points.
Another highlight of that season came in an early defeat at Catalan Dragons, when substitute prop Jamie Thackeray scored possibly Leeds’ best try of the Super League era, taking the ball 40 metres from Catalan’s line, chipping over the defence, regathering, kicking again and making the catch to race over.
Key player of 2007: Rob Burrow
POCKET ROCKET Rob Burrow fizzled throughout 2007, being named Leeds Rhinos’ player of the year and then going on to earn an even more significant honour.
Burrow’s scintillating performance in Rhinos’ epic Old Trafford conquering of defending champions and league leaders St Helens saw him become only the fourth Leeds player to win the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match in a Championship, Premiership or Grand Final.
Burrow, at 5ft 4 the shortest player in Super League, came through Rhinos’ academy ranks, made his Leeds debut in 2001 and played in their first Grand Final win three years later. He scored 16 tries in 30 appearances in 2007 – also adding six goals – and was at his best in the Grand Final, on the day another legendary Leeds scrum-half, Jeff Stevenson, passed away.
Burrow – who booted a drop goal in the Championship win – was also named in the 2007 Super League Dream Team as he flourished under the guidance of team boss Tony Smith. Burrow has gone down in Leeds club history as one of the “gang of six” who has played in all Rhinos’ Grand Final triumphs.
He was also a unanimous man of the match in the 2012 Old Trafford victory over St Helens, when he came off the bench to score a stunning solo try and create another for winger Ryan Hall. Burrow’s touchdown that night has been rated the best scored in a Grand Final. Leeds trailed 2-0 when Burrow took the ball from first receiver 40 metres out, burst past Tony Puletua and Scott Moore and stepped around Paul Wellens to touch down between the posts.
In the second half he broke clear from dummy-half, sent Francis Meli the wrong way with a dummy and then timed a pass to Ryan Hall to perfection, the winger getting over at the corner for a game-breaking touchdown.
A hugely popular figure at Headingley – and the team joker – Burrow passed 400 games for Rhinos this year. He also completed the set of domestic trophies with the 2014 Challenge Cup final victory over Castleford.
2007 season in numbers
1: Point Leeds finished behind league leaders St Helens
2: Leeds’ position in the Super League table
4: Players made their debut – Ryan Hall, Kylie Leuluai, Michael Ratu and Brent Webb
24: Touchdowns for top try scorer Brent Webb
142: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield
305: Kevin Sinfield’s points tally, including six tries and three drop goals
747: Points scored by Rhinos in the regular season
487: Points conceded by Rhinos in the regular season
17,043: Average attendance at Headingley
71,352: Crowd at the Grand Final
Super League Grand Final: Saturday, October 13, at Old Trafford. Leeds Rhinos 33 (Tries Webb, Lauitiiti, Donald, Smith, Jones-Buchanan; Goals Sinfield six; Drop goal Burrow) St Helens 6 (Try Roby, Goal Long). Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Smith, Toopi, Senior, Donald, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield. Subs Lauitiiti, Bailey, Kirke, Ablett. St Helens: Wellens, Gardner, Gidley, Talau, Meli, Pryce, Long, Fozzard, Cunningham, Cayless, Gilmour, Flannery, Wilkin. Subs Graham, Roby, Fa’asavalu, Bennett. Referee: Ashley Klein. Attendance: 71,352.