ASTONISHING. Leeds Rhinos’ so-called dismal season is going to end at Old Trafford.
A team who seemed dead and buried two months ago have become the first to reach a Grand Final from FIFTH place on the Engage Super League table.
Rhinos produced a performance of astonishing class and courage to stun league leaders Warrington Wolves 26-24 in a classic play-offs semi-final at HJ Stadium last night.
In an echo of August’s Challenge Cup semi-final, skipper Kevin Sinfield kicked Rhinos into the title decider with a nerveless penalty goal two minutes from time.
It was a magnificent, whole-hearted effort from Rhinos, who couldn’t have given much more. Over the course of the season Warrington deserved a place in the Grand Final, but Leeds were better on the night.
It was a wonderful team performance from Leeds – and it’d be hard to think of one better by any side in Super League.
They were led by hooker Danny Buderus whose Leeds swansong will now be at Old Trafford.
Sinfield was a tower of strength, Brent Webb rolled back the years, Ryan Hall had a fantastic game on the wing and Rob Burrow was all class off the bench.
Leeds seemed to be on their knees a couple of time, but the never-say-die spirit which won three successive titles is back.
Warrington would have floored most other sides, but Leeds finished the stronger – despite the game looking set to drift away on a couple of occasions.
Rhinos scored the opening try inside four minutes, though most of the opening period was a rearguard action.
Garreth Carvell stole the ball from Jamie Peacock in a two-man tackle and in the subsequent set Danny McGuire kicked over the line early in the tackle count and Carl Ablett read it to perfection to pick up and touch down.
Ablett – wearing a headguard –made his return in the left-centre after two matches out due to a facial injury. Brett Delaney moved to the pack and Ali Lauitiiti dropped out.
Wolves’ first try came on 15 minutes. Briers’ kick to the corner was taken by Matt King and batted to Ryan Atkins and his offload put Joel Monaghan over.
Brett Hodgson’s conversion levelled the scores, after Sinfield had improved Ablett’s score from near the touchline.
A break by Chris Riley could have created a second try for the hosts, but his pass inside was picked up by Zak Hardaker.
Warrington got over the Rhinos line on 28 minutes but Ganson ruled David Solomona’s pass to Ben Westwood – making his comeback from injury off the bench – was forward.
Rhinos would have been highly delighted to go in all-square at the break and they were five minutes away from doing that, but in the set from a penalty – for a ball steal by Weller Hauraki – Michael Monaghan’s looping pass was finished by Reilly and Chris Bridge’s conversion made it 12-6.
The former Bradford player took over goal kicking duties after Hodgson suffered ankle ligament damage mid-way through the opening half.
That was a fair reflection of the balance of play, though at just six points down Leeds were still well in the contest.
The weight of pressure was against them however and they made only rare excursions into Wolves territory. Rhinos had an attack when the re-start from Ablett’s try was booted out on the full, then Michael Monaghan knocked on near his own line after Riley had crossed and Leeds managed to force a drop out, but they didn’t look like finding a way through.
A minute before the break Hardaker went on a tremendous run from Webb’s pass near the Leeds line, but he lost the ball in King’s tackle 20 metres out.
Rhinos needed to score first after the break and they did that, within 50 seconds.
Warrington have an attacking instinct from anywhere on the field and it pays off as often as not.
This was a not, as Simon Grix slung the ball towards Joel Monaghan, but Hall intercepted and then finished brilliantly, evading Briers to cross near the posts.
Sinfield added the extras, but parity lasted less than eight minutes.
A Briers kick took a wicked bounce and was fumbled by Sinfield in front of his own posts. Ben Jones-Bishop picked up in an offside position and following the tap King powered over at the corner and Bridge landed a magnificent conversion.
That seemed like a killer blow, but astonishingly Rhinos climbed off the ropes to level again on the hour.
Burrow made a sensational break with McGuire in support. He was halted by Atkins, but Hall was backing up and he took the pass to cross.
Sinfield added the extras and in the next set Webb weaved into space and Burrow finished off.
The captain’s fourth goal made it 24-18 with 17 minutes left. With 11 to go Hauraki was adjudged to have knocked on following Adrian Morley’s hit.
That gave Warrington a lifeline, Reilly crossing from Briers’ pass and Bridge levelling with the goal.
King was tackled just short moments later – as spotted by video referee Ian Smith – and then Sinfield missed with a penalty attempt from half way.
The ball bounced dead and following the restart Hall got over at the corner, only for Smith to spot the slightest of knock-ons by Burrow in the build-up.
Warrington couldn’t clear their lines though and moments later Sinfield had a drop goal attempt charged down.
Wolves’ Richie Myler was offside and Sinfield kept his nerve to land the penalty – which levelled the match count up to five each – with two minutes left to complete arguably Rhinos’ finest win of the summer era.
Warrington Wolves: Hodgson, J Monaghan, King, Atkins, Riley, Briers, Myler, Morley, M Monaghan, Carvell, Anderson, Grix, Bridge. Subs (all used) Westwood, Clarke, Cooper, Solomona.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Jones-Bishop, Delaney, Hardaker, Hall, Sinfield, McGuire, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Hauraki, Clarkson, Burrow, Bailey, Lauitiiti, Kirke, Ablett, Pitts.
Referee: Steve Ganson (St Helens).