THE PROSPECT of Danny McGuire lining up against Leeds Rhinos next season is almost unimaginable, but – at the same time – understandable.
The term “legend” gets bandied about too much in sport, but in McGuire’s case it’s fitting. In 50 years’ time he is a player the older generation of Leeds fans will talk about, just as Lewis Jones is for the longest-serving supporters now.
McGuire deserves to be mentioned in such illustrious company. He is certainly in Leeds’ all-time top-10 players and probably their greatest five. His achievements have been matched by others including past and present team-mates Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow, but may never be surpassed: seven Grand Final wins, two Challenge Cups, three World Club titles and three league leaders’ shields.
It is a staggering achievement and McGuire must be rated as one of the best sportsmen born in Leeds. He came on to the scene in 2001 at a time of major upheaval for Rhinos and was the heartbeat of their greatest era.
It was McGuire’s brilliant close-range try – his 39th of the season – which sealed victory over Bradford Bulls in the 2004 Grand Final, ending 32 years of hurt. That was possibly his finest moment, but it is one of many great memories created over 17 remarkable seasons.
He made his debut as an 18-year-old in 2001, but burst spectacularly into the spotlight two years later when he scored a brace of tries in Leeds’ Challenge Cup win over St Helens, which is regarded as possibly the best and certainly most dramatic semi-final of all time.
McGuire was dropped for the final, but proved his strength of character the following year when Leeds finished top of the table before winning their first Super League title, his touchdowns being a key element of that success.
He also scored tries in the 2007, 2008 and 2015 – when he was man of the match – Grand Final wins, the 2014 and 2015 Wembley victories and, his personal favourite, the 2005 World Club triumph against Canterbury Bulldogs at Elland Road.
McGuire began as a support player and try-poacher who was blessed with electric pace. As injuries and age took their toll he has reinvented himself as an organising half and his performance against Salford Red Devils four days ago proved he is still among the best in the business. His kicking and passing was spot on and he was the inspiration as Rhinos ran in seven first-half tries against what was the third-best defence in Super League.
But all good things, eventually, come to an end. McGuire missed much of last season through injury and though he has played well this season, Leeds have been looking for something new from their halves since Sinfield – who formed such an outstanding combination with McGuire – retired at the end of 2015. McGuire and Joel Moon have worked well together this season, but the writing was on the wall when Richie Myler was signed from Catalans Dragons on a three-year contract, beginning next term.
With 20-year-old Jordan Lilley also agreeing a long-term deal, McGuire has recognised Rhinos are looking to the future.
He had an option to stay at Leeds next year, but it is a measure of him that he was prepared to step aside.
He clearly believes he has something still to offer and, though he’s now 34, a couple of long-term layoffs mean he has got good miles left in his legs. He obviously wants to play every week, but Rhinos now need to be building around a new generation of players.
It is disappointing he will not see out his career at his hometown club, but he is leaving on his terms and the arrangement suits both parties in the long-run.
McGuire hasn’t always got the credit he deserves from fans of other clubs, particularly Wigan, but anyone with even a basic understanding of rugby league will realise he has been a very special talent.
It is also worth mentioning that McGuire is a thoroughly decent individual who has never lost touch with his roots. His role as an ambassador for Leeds Mencap is an indication of his qualities and character off the field. Rhinos will carry on after he plays his final game, but the club will be poorer without him.