YEP rugby league writer Peter Smith looks back on a rollercoaster season for Leeds Rhinos which culminated in an unforgettable display in the Grand Final.
Being written-off as serious contenders spurred Leeds Rhinos on to re-draw the record books in 2011, but they will need to find some other source of motivation next season.
It is unlikely Leeds will be discounted in the future after what they achieved at the end of probably the most remarkable season in the club’s history.
For seven months it was, at best, a mediocre campaign, but it finished on the most incredible high. This was a year when Rhinos recorded their lowest league finish for a decade, lost 11 times in the league, including home and away to Harlequins, were beaten on their own turf five times and conceded 40 or more points on four occasions – yet they ended it as champions.
On July 10, Rhinos were eighth in Engage Super League, having won 10, lost 10 and drawn one of their league matches. Their points difference was only 29.
At that stage, following a dismal 38-18 defeat at Catalan Dragons, Rhinos were priced at 25-1 to win the Grand Final. They looked a dispirited, disorganised side, there were question-marks over whether they would even finish in the top eight and calls were growing for coach Brian McDermott to get the boot.
Fast forward almost exactly three months and McDermott was hailed as a conquering hero as he showed off the Super League trophy at Rhinos’ post-Grand Final homecoming.
It was an astonishing transformation and it cemented Rhinos’ place in Super League folklore as the first team to win five Grand Finals and the first to reach Old Trafford from fifth – or even outside the top-three – in the league table.
Fourteen of the 17 players on duty in Perpignan went on to play in the Grand Final triumph, the exceptions being Lee Smith, Weller Hauraki and Paul McShane. In came Zak Hardaker, Rob Burrow and Ali Lauitiiti.
The defeat in France marked a turning point. From that game onwards discipline and attitude improved, defensively Rhinos looked stronger and they posed a far greater threat with the ball.
Leeds went on to suffer just two more defeats in their remaining 13 matches in all competitions – away to Harlequins and against Wigan Warriors in the following weekend’s Carnegie Challenge Cup final.
Rhinos won all six games after Wembley, which is an impressive feat in itself. Before round 27, when they travelled to Huddersfield Giants, they had not beaten a top-four team and were still in danger of finishing as low as eighth.
They were victorious that afternoon, repeated their success in the second round of the play-offs and finished the campaign with wins against the teams who finished first and third. By the end of the season, Rhinos were the form team and they had individuals who were playing at the very top of their game.
So how did this transformation come about? It was a combination of factors, some of it in the mind. After their truculent display against Catalan, Rhinos’ players made a conscious decision to knuckle down. Their attitude improved and they cut out the arguing among themselves and with referees.
When things went wrong in games, instead of letting heads drop, sleeves were rolled up and the never-say-die spirit which had won three successive titles from 2007-2009 resurfaced. That was most obvious in the semi-final win at Warrington Wolves and the Grand Final itself.
Leeds began the year with a new coach, who wanted to do things his way. Appointed at short-notice, he had little time to plan pre-season and the freezing winter gave him very limited on-field practice opportunities. Rhinos were also ravaged by injuries at the start of the season. They began the campaign without two of their main men, Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock and suffered a host of fitness problems in key positions.
At one stage all their recognised props were sidelined, at another they were stricken in the outside-backs – including the loss of Keith Senior, who had barely missed a game in a decade.
It is no coincidence that Rhinos’ form picked up as they got players back and McGuire and Peacock began to find their feet.
The positive out of that was that many of Leeds’ leading players were relatively fresh come the end of the season, despite the team playing in the maximum number of games possible: 27 league matches, five in the Challenge Cup and four play-offs.
Backed by the club’s management, McDermott stuck to his guns and eventually his message got across. Despite his doubters, he obviously can coach. By the end of the year, Rhinos were playing some tremendous rugby with ball in hand and defending impressively, as they showed in the Grand Final. Twice in the second half of the season they kept a clean sheet, which is a good achievement in Super League.
Rhinos didn’t particularly change the way they were playing, but things began to go for them. And when it all comes together, Leeds have enough good players to be a threat to anyone.
Before this season the play-offs had been dominated by teams finishing in the top-two, so it’s no surprise Rhinos were written off as title contenders.
But some of the bookies’ odds were disrespectful to a team including players of the calibre of Brent Webb, Ryan Hall, Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Jamie Peacock and Danny Buderus, to name a few.
Leeds didn’t have a single representative in the Super League Dream Team, which was added motivation. Based on performances in the regular season that may have been fair enough, but Hall deserved a place and a strong case could be made for Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
As for Kevin Sinfield, he must wonder – as a five-time Grand Final-winning captain – what he has to do to get a Man of Steel nomination.
The ever-present Sinfield was Rhinos’ most influential player in 2011 and they would have struggled to make the eight had he been among the early season casualties.
Fans watching him now are lucky, because in 50 years’ time people will be asking – as they do about Lewis Jones today – How good was he really? Sinfield is now up there with Jones and John Holmes as one of Leeds’ three greatest players.
He may not do everything at 100 per cent, but he does more things very well than probably any other player in the game: his passing and kicking is good, he is an inspirational leader, he has great vision and he can control a game. He is also a world class goal kicker.
Having broken Jones’ club goals record this year – when he scored in every game – he is likely to become Leeds’ highest points scorer at some stage in 2012.
Danny Buderus finally found his best form towards the end of his Leeds career and he was a key figure in the run-in to the title, particularly the semi-final win at Warrington.
Jones-Buchanan put in a massive effort all year and was the club’s official player of the season, with Webb second and Sinfield third.
This reporter would have given the honour to Sinfield, ahead of the hugely impressive Carl Ablett and ever-reliable Jones-Buchanan. Ablett is beginning to look like a very good player. He is a rock-solid back-rower and did an outstanding job when switched into the centres as Senior’s replacement. He thoroughly deserved to score the try which put the Grand Final out of Saints’ reach.
It’s a strange observation to make about the reigning champions, but – given their blend of youth and experience – Leeds again have the makings of becoming a very good side.
One more recruit is on the agenda, but the question is, where should Leeds strengthen? Zak Hardaker’s form suggests there’s no longer an urgent need to sign a centre and in fact all the outside-back positions are well covered.
There’s no problem in the halves and two props – Darrell Griffin and Richard Moore – have been signed to replace mid-season losses Ben Cross and Luke Burgess.
Though Ali Lauitiiti’s departure to Wakefield could leave a vacancy in the second-row, other than the obvious lack of an experienced hooker it’s hard to identify a weakness based on the form Rhinos showed over the final quarter of the campaign.