ALL THE hard work Leeds Rhinos put into the 2009 season came down to one question: Was Lee Smith onside?
With eight minutes remaining in the Grand Final and Rhinos leading only 11-10, Danny McGuire grubbered a kick through the St Helens defence and Smith gathered to touch down.
Referee Steve Ganson handed the decision on and – despite camera angles suggesting Smith had been slightly in front of McGuire when boot went to ball – video referee Phil Bentham awarded the try.
Kevin Sinfield converted and Rob Burrow added a late drop goal to seal an 18-10 victory which underlined Rhinos’ superiority, after they had finished four points clear of Saints at the top of the table.
“There was a big debate about whether Lee was offside,” McGuire recalls. “It’s funny, because I had been practicing kicking with my left foot in the build-up.
“I stepped inside, grubbered off my left foot and Smithy seemed to appear from nowhere.
“I thought at the time surely he must be offside, but the decision went our way and it was pretty crucial.
“I was really happy with it. It shows that the hard work you put in throughout the year does get rewarded, if you stick together.”
That was Smith’s second try of the final, both coming off kicks by McGuire. Matt Diskin crossed for Leeds’ opening touchdown and Sinfield finished with two goals, plus a one-pointer.
It was Smith’s farewell appearance for Rhinos before a move to rugby union and McGuire said: “That was a big thing for me.
“I always wanted Lee to go out on a high, so I was pretty determined to do well.
“We are both Leeds lads and good mates, so it was special to send him out like that.”
The triumph at Old Trafford was Rhinos’ third successive Grand Final victory, completing their historic three-peat – all against Saints.
That is something no other club has achieved and McGuire said: “Teams will find it hard enough to win two and it will take some doing to win three on the bounce, especially with the format, the salary cap and the competition getting much more even.
“I think it will be a while before it happens again, but you probably don’t realise what an achievement it is at the time, while you’re still playing.
“It’s the sort of thing you probably look back on later. As champions everyone wants to knock you off your perch and the competition gets stronger every year, so to rise to that challenge is pretty special.
“It just shows what a great group we had around at the time.”
Rhinos set the early pace in 2009, but a spring glitch saw them slip to third before they re-found their form to win 17 of their final 19 matches in all competitions.
Leeds lost four out of five games in April – including a Challenge Cup exit against Saints and dire home defeats by Salford, the only time they have lost to them in the summer era and Brian McDermott-coached Harlequins – before getting back into their stride.
“We had finished second the year before and we put a big emphasis on trying to finish top,” McGuire said.
“A lot is said about it, the fact that since the play-offs came in you don’t have to finish top to be successful, but that year we really had a dig and we were pretty consistent throughout the year.
“We hadn’t changed massively from the Tony Smith era, but Bluey (coach Brian McClennan) brought some good things.
“He got his ideas across and he was very positive and motivational. He found his feet and it was a pretty good year for us.”
There was disappointment early on when Rhinos were beaten by Manly in the World Club Challenge, in front of a crowd of 32,569 at Elland Road.
That was Leeds’ only loss in their opening six competitive matches, but they slipped up away to Saints in the league and then had that disappointing April.
After that, Rhinos were beaten only twice: 32-30 at Catalan in June and 28-10 away to Wigan three months later.
A huge influence for Rhinos in 2009 was skipper Kevin Sinfield, who was named their player of the year – for the third time – and won the Harry Sunderland Trophy as Grand Final man of the match.
Assessing Sinfield’s contribution, McGuire said: “He is a calming influence on the team and he has been ever since he was made captain.
“Even at 22 or 23 he had a really mature demeanor and he was able to get his point across to the players without feeling pressure.
“Playing under him, that’s something you really look at. He always keeps calm in pressure situations and he really stepped up and led from the front in 2009.”
The 2009 season in numbers 1: Leeds’ position in the Super League table, four points ahead of runners-up St Helens
3: Successive Grand Final wins achieved by Rhinos
4: Players made their Rhinos debut – Jay Pitts, Danny Buderus, Paul McShane and Dane Manning
17: Wins recorded by Leeds in their final 19 competitive games of the campaign
32: Touchdowns for top try scorer Ryan Hall
125: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield, including three drop goals
453: Points conceded by Rhinos in the regular season
805: Points scored by Rhinos in the regular season
1,444: Drop in the average league attendance at Headingley from 2008
15,778: Average home attendance in all competitions
World Club Challenge: Sunday, March 1, at Elland Road: Leeds Rhinos 20 (Tries Jones-Buchanan, Senior, Hall, McGuire. Goals Sinfield 2) Manly Sea Eagles 28 (Tries B Stewart 2 Watmough 2, Matai. Goals Orford 4). Leeds Rhinos: Smith, Donald, Ablett, Senior, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Kirke, Sinfield. Subs Lauitiiti, Bailey, Burgess, Watkins.
Super League Grand Final: Saturday, October 10, at Old Trafford: Leeds Rhinos 18 (Tries Smith 2, Diskin. Goals Sinfield two, Drop goals Sinfield, Burrow) St Helens 10 (Try Eastmond. Goals Eastmond 3). Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Donald, Smith, Senior, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Sinfield. Subs Bailey, Burgess, Kirke, Lauitiiti.
Key player of 2009
Captain fantastic Kevin Sinfield was Leeds Rhinos’ player of the year in 2009.
For the fourth time – and third in as many seasons – Sinfield lifted the Super League trophy and he also skippered Rhinos to their second league leaders’ shield.
It was the season when Sinfield became only the second player – following club legend Lewis Jones – to reach 1,000 goals for Leeds. He kicked 125 in 2009, including three one-pointers – the last of those being in the Old Trafford triumph over St Helens.
Sinfield played in 29 of Rhinos’ 32 competitive fixtures and finished with an impressive points tally of 263. Then playing at loose-forward, Sinfield’s leadership was a vital ingredient in Rhinos’ success as they overcame early season jitters – including a run of four defeats in five games in April – to finish as by far the competition’s strongest team.
Highlights of the captain’s campaign included last-gasp winning goals against Castleford Tigers and Warrington Wolves, man-of-the-match displays against Huddersfield and Hull and a Harry Sunderland Award-winning performance in the Grand Final. He was also named in the Super League Dream Team.
The 2009 campaign was Sinfield’s 13th in Rhinos’ senior squad, since making his debut in 1997. Appointed captain in 2002, he is undoubtedly the most successful skipper in the club’s history, its record goals and points scorer and one of its finest players.
He also holds the Super League points and goals records and has won the Harry Sunderland honour twice – the second time being in 2012 against Warrington Wolves.
He was awarded the Golden Boot as the world’s best player for his efforts in 2012 and also has a Lance Todd Trophy in his collection, being 2005 Challenge Cup final man of the match. The defeat by Hull nine years ago saw him collect one of five Cup runner’s up medals, but he completed the set of available club trophies – all as captain – when Rhinos beat Castleford at Wembley earlier this year, a week before quitting as England skipper.