LEEDS RHINOS created yet more history in 2011. Two years after completing the famous three-peat – their third successive Grand Final triumph – Rhinos became the first team to win the Super League title from outside the top-three in the league table.
It was probably the most remarkable season of any team since summer rugby began in 1996 as – within the space of a few sensational weeks – Leeds went from zeros to heroes.
Under new coach Brian McDermott, who had succeeded Brian McClennan in the off-season, Rhinos slumped as low as eighth in the table before finally finding their feet.
For the second successive year they suffered Wembley disappointment, losing 28-18 to Wigan Warriors in the Challenge Cup final, but that proved to be their last defeat of the campaign.
Finishing fifth gave them a home game in the opening round of the play-offs, but meant they would be away to teams above them each week after that.
It was a daunting task, but as confidence grew in the team and on the terraces Rhinos came through with flying colours.
Former Australian captain Danny Buderus was in his third and final season with Leeds and pinpointed a dismal 38-18 drubbing at Catalan Dragons in July – which left Rhinos hanging on to the final play-offs spot – as the season’s turning point.
McDermott’s men were beaten only twice after that, in successive weeks at London and by Wigan in the Cup final and Buderus – now an assistant-coach at Newcastle Knights – recalled: “Looking back, we didn’t play well, but there were some glimpses.
“If you were a coach or a player, you’d have said you could see some good things there. We just had to fix a few things up, especially in defence.
“We got pretty stingy with our defence after that and one thing I like about that Leeds team was, it had gears. Even when we were playing well we could step up and take it to the next level.”
The debacle at Stade Gilbert Brutus was Rhinos’ third successive defeat. They won 11 of their 13 matches after that and Buderus, who played in 35 of Leeds’ 36 games that year, remembers the way belief in the camp grew with every victory.
“We had not beaten a team in the top-four all year, until the final round away to Huddersfield,” he said.
“But in the play-offs we just went out and performed. It was one of those seasons when I learned a lot. A lot of my head space is filled with what we did in those three years in England.
“We enjoyed so many ups and downs and Leeds never do it easy – it is always the hard way. That’s the Leeds way.
“It takes some characters to get you out of trouble, but we had some resilience about the group and nothing was ever as bad as it seemed to be. We got on a roll, we had a lot of confidence about us and we just kept on going.
“Once we got to the big one we had a quiet confidence that nobody was going to stop us.
“We had a lot of confidence against a team we had played a lot of times.”
As they had been in 2007-2009, St Helens – who had finished third on the table – were again Leeds’ victims at Old Trafford.
But before Rhinos got there they had to overcome league leaders Warrington Wolves, who had finished 13 points better off in the weekly rounds and chose to play Leeds as their club call pick.
Rhinos’ 26-24 triumph, sealed by a late Kevin Sinfield penalty goal at a stunned HJ Stadium, ranks as one of the best wins in the club’s history.
“It was a red-hot Warrington team,” Buderus said.
“There was a big atmosphere, with our fans at one end and theirs three-quarters of the way around.
“But it felt like our fans were all over them, they gave us fantastic support and we rode on that momentum.
“We had a lot of big-game players in that squad and we got the job done.”
The title decider was a classic with Leeds recovering from 16-8 down in the second half to win 32-16.
Rob Burrow scored a sensational solo try in the opening period to give Leeds the lead and then his break created an even better touchdown for Ryan Hall as Rhinos got on top late in the game.
Burrow was a unanimous winner of the Harry Sunderland award as man of the match and even three years later Buderus is full of praise for the half-back/hooker’s performance – and the way he was managed by McDermott.
“What he (Burrow)did was phenomenal,” Buderus said. “His footwork is fantastic.
“The way Mac handled that whole year was very impressive and he got the whole team up for the semis and the Grand Final.
“It was a really big effort from all the coaching staff and the whole club.
“Everyone chipped in.
“And the players with Grand Final experience did it once again.”
Key player of 2011: Jamie Jones-Buchanan
IT WAS a great career that almost never happened.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who was player of the year in 2011, made his debut for Leeds Rhinos as an 18-year-old in 1999, but his first start didn’t come until three years later.
After three substitute appearances in 1999, he made just one the following year and two in 2001 and didn’t cement a regular place in Rhinos’ side until 2005. By then the back-row forward was already a Grand Final winner – achieved in his 16th game of the 2004 season – and had overcome more adversity than most players suffer in a career.
A fierce competitor, the former Stanningley amateur refused to let a series of potentially career-ending groin injuries derail his ambition of playing for his hometown club.
Since coming through that crisis at the start of his career, Jones-Buchanan has gone on to become one of the most decorated players in the club’s history, playing in all six of Leeds’ Grand Final wins, plus three World Club Challenge victories and last season’s Challenge Cup final triumph. He also has one Great Britain cap and 11 for England, having first represented his country at schoolboy level in 1997.
His 2011 player of the year honour came after twice being runner-up and he was a key figure as Rhinos climbed from eighth place mid-way through the year to record an historic Grand Final success – the first by a team from fifth spot – against St Helens at Old Trafford.
A strong ball carrier and determined tackler, Jones-Buchanan has started 254 games for Leeds, with another 67 appearances off the bench, scoring 68 tries – including the final touchdown at Old Trafford in 2007. That total would have been higher, but for more injury problems, including knee damage and a severely torn biceps last term.
Off the field, Jones-Buchanan – a committed Christian – has begun to make a name for himself as a writer, broadcaster and inspirational speaker.
He has twice won the club’s commitment to the community honour and is also a trustee of the Leeds Rugby Foundation.
2011 season in numbers
5: Leeds’ position in the Super League table.
8: Rhinos’ position after their infamous round 21 defeat at Catalan Dragons.
10: Appearances made by Aussie recruit Ben Cross before he was released in June.
13: Points Rhinos finished behind league leaders Warrington Wolves.
32: Touchdowns for top try scorer Ryan Hall.
42: Days between the agony of Wembley and ecstasy at Old Trafford.
330: Kevin Sinfield’s points tally, including two tries, two drop goals and 160 goals.
603: Points conceded by Rhinos in the regular season.
757: Points scored by Rhinos in the regular season.
15,216: Average home gate in all competitions.
Challenge Cup final: Saturday, August 27, at Wembley. Leeds Rhinos 18 (Tries Hall 2, Jones-Bishop, Ablett. Goal Sinfield) Wigan Warriors 28. Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Ablett, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Hauraki. Subs Burrow, Bailey, Kirke, Clarkson.
Super League Grand Final: Saturday, October 8, at Old Trafford. Leeds Rhinos 32 (Tries Burrow, Webb, Hall, Ablett. Goals Sinfield 6) St Helens 16. Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Jones-Bishop, Hardaker, Ablett, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Clarkson. Subs Burrow, Bailey, Kirke, Lauitiiti.