THIS YEAR was a successful season for Leeds Rhinos, but also a disappointing one.
Rhinos finally, for the first time since 1999, got their hands on the coveted Challenge Cup.
But in terms of Super League, the only time they have finished lower in the table was 1996, when they spent the season battling against relegation.
A sixth-placed finish was a huge disappointment for a side who had targeted top spot and then, to rub salt into their wounds, Rhinos fell at the first hurdle in the play-offs, something which hadn’t happened since 2006.
Rhinos went into the 2014 campaign having lost in six Challenge Cup finals following their record-breaking demolition of London Broncos 15 years earlier.
The Challenge Cup was the only trophy to have eluded the golden generation and getting their hands on it sealed their status as club legends.
It also made Brian McDermott the most successful coach in the club’s history, with two Super League titles, a World Club Challenge and the Wembley victory on his CV since joining Leeds ahead of the 2011 campaign.
Veteran prop Kylie Leuluai, who made his Rhinos debut in 2007, is among the players to have won every available honour. He has mixed feelings about this year.
“One from two (trophies won) isn’t too bad,” he said. “You can’t complain about that.
“People say it’s disappointing, but if we had won the Grand Final and not won the Challenge Cup they would have said the same thing – they’d be saying we can’t win the Challenge Cup. People are hard to please.”
Rhinos certainly didn’t have it easy on the road to Wembley.
After a huge win at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in their first tie, they saw off St Helens – who went on to finish top of the table and win the Grand Final – in round five.
The quarter-final was a tense home victory over Kingstone Press Championship champions-elect Leigh Centurions – one of only two defeats they suffered all year – before Warrington were conquered at the semi-final stage.
That set the record straight after Leeds had been beaten by former head coach, Tony Smith’s men in the 2010 and 2012 finals.
Leeds dominated most of the decider – their fourth in five seasons – before eventually overcoming neighbours Castleford Tigers 23-10, with two-try winger Ryan Hall being named man of the match.
Leuluai admitted relief was the primary emotion afterwards. He said: “I suppose it was, after the disappointment of the last few years.
“It was one we wanted to get in the cabinet.
“That box is ticked now – so the challenge now is to do it again next year.”
But the 36-year-old prop denied Rhinos placed all their eggs in the Cup’s basket in 2014.
“It is always tough, but we always want to win it,” he stressed.
“There’s not one year when we haven’t wanted to win it, but we did the job this year.”
Rhinos are used to winning the Grand Final, which is the last game of the domestic season. They had three Super League rounds still to play after Wembley and Leuluai conceded that was a shock to the system.
“When you win at Old Trafford you can relax and focus on enjoying your off-season,” he reflected.
“With the Challenge Cup the celebrations are cut off. I found that a bit strange.”
Along with Saints, Rhinos were the form team before the Cup began, but, as Wembley grew larger in their sights, league performances suffered.
They were top of the table at the time of the Cup win over Saints, but failed to win a match after Wembley and their final Super League success was at Salford Red Devils on July 25, when they were second. Over the second half of the season Rhinos lost to both relegated clubs – London and Bradford Bulls – and Wakefield who finished third from bottom.
Leuluai insisted the Super League collapse wasn’t due to Rhinos’ Cup run. “We just didn’t perform well,” he stated. “There were a few areas that let us down and that’s sport. We could have won the Catalan (play-offs) game, but we didn’t.
“Our form going into the game wasn’t great but that’s sport – you have to take the good with the bad. We obviously had a great period with the Challenge Cup, but we lost it at the end. That’s the way it is.”
Once again Rhinos introduced several young players to top-flight rugby and Leuluai sees that as a positive to take into 2015.
Luke Briscoe, Ashton Golding, Ash Handley, Rob Mulhern, Josh Walters and Robbie Ward all made their debuts in Super League, along with Ben White, who was released at the end of the year.
“In that aspect it was a good season for our youth,” Leuluai said. “They got to play in some testing times, so we got to see how they handled it – and some of them have made it into the 25 for next season.”
AN ELITE group of five players have featured in Leeds Rhinos’ six Grand Final wins, three World Club Challenge triumphs and this year’s Challenge Cup success.
All of that contingent – consisting of Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Kevin Sinfield and Ryan Bailey – are products of Rhinos’ academy system.
As the most decorated players of Leeds’ greatest era, they will be remembered among Headingley’s all-time greats and it seemed they would all spend their careers as one-club men.
That was until the autumn when Bailey, who had a year remaining on his Leeds deal, was released to join Super League rivals Hull KR.
His departure marked the end of an era, but wasn’t entirely a shock given the fact he had struggled to hold on to his place in the team at times.
Bailey was no stranger to controversy during his 13 seasons in Rhinos’ senior side, during which he made 313 senior appearances. A pantomime villain on the field, he was loved by Rhinos fans and hated by supporters of opposition teams, but his domestic record is as good as any prop of his generation.
Blessed with raw power and surprising agility, Bailey possibly did not fulfil his true potential. He looked like being a key member of Great Britain’s pack for the next decade when making his Test debut in 2004, but was restricted to just four substitute appearances during that Three Nations campaign, plus a similar number of games with England. On his day, Bailey was capable of taking on any rival forward and he was probably at his peak in 2004 and 2005, when he was a regular member of Leeds’ first-choice 17. He also produced some of his best form during the 2011 campaign, earning a call-up to the international squad, though he didn’t make England’s Four Nations line-up.
Occasionally let down by disciplinary issues off the field as well as on it, Bailey made just eight starts and 14 appearances off the bench this year, but was part of the team which completed the set of all available trophies against Castleford at Wembley.
2014 in numbers
2: Times Rhinos were beaten by more than a converted try, out of 11 Super League defeats.
5: Successive losses suffered at the end of the regular league season.
6: Rhinos final position in the Super League table.
9: Players made their Rhinos debut: Paul Aiton, Luke Briscoe, Tom Briscoe, Ashton Golding, Ash Handley, Rob Mulhern, Josh Walters, Robbie Ward, Ben White.
25: Touchdowns by leading try scorer Ryan Hall.
31: Players used in the season.
104: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield, including two drop goals.
421: Points conceded by Rhinos in the regular season.
513: Drop in Rhinos’ average Super League attendance from 2013.
685: Points scored by Rhinos in the regular season.
Tetley’s Challenge Cup final: Saturday, August 23, at Wembley. Leeds Rhinos 23 (Tries: Hall 2, T Briscoe, McGuire. Goals: Sinfield 3. Drop goal McGuire), Castleford Tigers 10. Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Delaney, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Subs: (all used): Aiton, Bailey, Kirke, Sutcliffe.