THE DEBATE over whether Leeds Rhinos are worthy 2017 Betfred Super League champions will continue throughout the closed-season, but the simple answer is yes, they are.
Castleford Tigers were the most consistent team and the competition’s credibility would have been stretched to breaking point if they hadn’t reached the Grand Final, but champion sides get their act together at the right time, perform when it really matters and excel on the big stage – qualities Rhinos specialise in.
There should be more reward for the team finishing top, possibly a bye through to Old Trafford with the second and third-placed teams playing off, but rugby league needs the Grand Final.
Though it might not have been a classic game, this year’s showpiece attracted a capacity 72,827 crowd and, for once, the code captured the public’s imagination.
Tigers should be proud of their achievements this year.
They have played a thrilling brand of rugby league which deservedly earned them top spot in the table for the first time in the club’s 91-year history.
Previously unsung players – for example Paul McShane, Greg Minikin, Mike McMeeken and Alex Foster – have flourished under coach Daryl Powell and will continue to improve.
Tigers have a strong squad, the majority of which is staying together and they now have to regroup and go again.
Their main disappointment was not last weekend’s defeat but the manner of it.
The occasion overwhelmed them, but they will be better for the experience the next time they appear in a major final.
It is surely only a matter of time before they get their hands on either the Challenge Cup or Super League trophy.
Circumstances went against them. The loss of star full-back Zak Hardaker, dropped just two days before the final following a failed drugs test, must have been a massive disruption.
Tigers paid Leeds £150,000 for Hardaker who began a four and a half-year contract on July 1. They now need to decide whether to stand by the player, who – if he cops a two-year ban – will be 27 when he is eligible to play again.
Hardaker has a troubled past and that is exactly why Leeds parted with one of the best players in the British game. He has apologised for an “enormous error of judgment”, but it is more than that. He has left his team-mates, the club and town down.
That said, he obviously has issues and, whether or not he plays again, the right thing for the sport to do is provide support to help him overcome those.
The situation was publicity rugby league could have done without, but some stories from Old Trafford made up for that.
Leeds legends Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow got the farewell they deserved and rugby league’s top stars again proved they are a breed apart.
Luke Gale had a poor night, but just playing in the final was a remarkable feat less than a month after emergency surgery to remove his appendix. It won’t be too long before a player has that type of operation at half-time of a game and then goes out for the second period.
Stevie Ward played the full 80 minutes – and was Leeds’ top tackler with 40 – just eight days after suffering a dislocated shoulder.
The 23-year-old Future Rhinos Captain spoke after the game about the “dark place” he was in a week earlier and his willingness to open up about mental health issues is admirable and should be welcomed and respected by everyone.
What now for Rhinos coach Brian McDermott, who has nothing left to prove to anyone?
Having stuck with him through the tough times last year and at the start of this season – and being rewarded for that – there is no chance the club will ever decide they need to sack him so he has the job for as long as he wants.
He said before the game he could not have walked away when Rhinos were at rock bottom, feeling he owed it to the club and players to turn things around.
They are at the top now and next year will be his eighth season.
At some point he may fancy a change and a new challenge, but after last weekend his reputation as one of the finest big-game coaches in modern history is assured.