Leeds Rhinos Nostalgia: Smith the hero of an unlikely final triumph

Lee Smith goes over for the Leeds Rhinos' first try against St Helens in the 2008 Grand Final.

Lee Smith goes over for the Leeds Rhinos' first try against St Helens in the 2008 Grand Final.

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OF LEEDS Rhinos’ six Grand Final wins, perhaps the most unexpected was their third, which came six years ago this Friday.

Leeds finished second in the Super League table and under the old top-six system it was no surprise they managed the one win needed to secure a second successive meeting with St Helens at Old Trafford.

But after being thumped 38-10 in the Grand Final qualifier just two weeks before the title decider, they weren’t given much chance of repeating the previous year’s triumph.

Saints were dominant in the semi-final at Knowsley Road, running in seven tries, five of them in the final half an hour after they led only 12-4 at the interval.

The league leaders went straight through to Old Trafford and Rhinos had a second chance, at home to Wigan Warriors, which they took with a tense 18-14 victory.

Saints were already hot favourites to regain the title they had last won in 2006 and the task facing Leeds got tougher 72 hours before the final when star full-back Brent Webb was ruled out due to a back injury suffered in training.

Webb had scored 26 tries in 32 appearances up to that point, so his absense was a massive blow to Leeds’ prospects.

Coach Brian McClennan reacted by moving Lee Smith to full-back, with Ryan Hall coming in on the right-wing for his first appearance since the Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Saints in July.

The final – played in torrential rain – appeared to be going exactly according to the script when Saints took a sixth minute lead, James Graham crossing for a try which Sean Long converted after Long, Lee Gilmour, Paul Wellens and Gilmour again had all handled.

Rhinos began to settle into the game and on 23 minutes they were level, Smith sliding over from Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s offload. Kevin Sinfield kicked the first of his four goals.

Four minutes before the interval Rhinos went ahead, through young winger Hall.

Sinfield and Gareth Ellis combined to move the ball right and Hall kicked ahead and followed up to touch down.

Leeds’ 12-6 half-time lead did not last long. Long kicked to the corner, Ade Gardner palmed the ball back and Gidley went over, Long adding the extras to square the scores on 43 minutes.

It stayed like that was for only six minutes. Smith landed a 40-20 kick and in the set from the scrum Sinfield grubbered to the line and Danny McGuire ran through to get the ball down between the posts.

Saints threw everything at Rhinos after that and they made the pressure count with 21 minutes left when Gardner crossed from James Roby’s pass, though – crucially – it was unconverted.

Again Leeds came up with a quick response as Francis Meli spilled a kick and McGuire swooped over for his second.

The conversion opened an eight-point gap and Rhinos held on to retain their title, with Smith being named man of the match.

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