Grand Final verdict: Magical McGuire inspires Leeds Rhinos to final glory
AFTER HIS side's Super-8s defeat at the Jungle Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott said it would take an incredible team to stop Castleford Tigers winning the Grand Final. And a day short of a month later, one did.
Of Rhinos’ record eight Super League titles, they will regard this 24-6 success as the sweetest, considering where they were a year ago. It ended a run of eight successive losses to their near-neighbours, four of those this season including a record 66-10 drubbing in March and was probably their most dominant performance at Old Trafford.
But, above all that, it was the ideal send-off for two of the Leeds club’s greatest servants, captain Danny McGuire and his long-time half-back partner Rob Burrow. McGuire wasn’t quite perfect; early in the second half he kicked out on the full from inside Leeds’ territory, but other than that the 34-year-old was at the absolute top of his game and it is hard to recall him playing better.
McGuire set up Leeds’ first touchdown and made a vital contribution – knocking the ball from Greg Eden’s grasp – to prevent a certain Castleford try. He landed a drop goal on the final play of the first half, grabbed two tries in the second and added another one-pointer late on. McGuire became the second player – after Burrow in 2011 – to unanimously win the Harry Sunderland Trophy as Championship final man of the match.
McGuire also won the award two years ago, again after bagging a brace, but this was an even better performance by the half-back who is the fourth-highest try scorer in the club’s history and surely one of greatest Leeds-born sportsmen.
Burrow was among the substitutes and wasn’t introduced until 15 minutes from time. It was his 490th Leeds appearance – the fifth most for the club – and last before hanging up his boots. He bows out with 195 tries to his name – plus 157 goals and five drop goals – and fittingly his kick led to Leeds’ fourth and final touchdown.
McGuire and Burrow lifted the trophy together, which was a nice touch. They are the only players involved in all eight of Leeds’ Grand Final wins and were the headline act, but there were stories right across the Rhinos team.
Full-back Jack Walker, aged 18 years and 60 days, succeeded team-mate Stevie Ward as the youngest player to win a Super League Grand Final. It was his 12th game for the club, but he played like a veteran.
Walker’s emergence could be one of the lasting legacies of Rhinos’ season. The youngster showed no hint of nerves, handled whatever Tigers threw at him and always looked capable of breaking the first line of defence.
His terrific run set up the field position for Leeds’ vital third try. That was scored by Tom Briscoe and was his second of the game. At the end of July he was written off after a disastrous afternoon in Leeds’ Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final defeat by Hull, but coach Brian McDermott stuck with him and since then he has been one of the team’s best players.
He beat Jy Hitchcox to McGuire’s excellent cross-kick after 12 minutes and was unfortunate to have a touchdown ruled out just before the break. Referee James Child would have awarded it, but video assistant Phil Bentham spotted a nudge on Paul McShane as both players chased McGuire’s smart free-play kick. There was contact, but it was minimal.
In the second half, Briscoe did get a second – the 150th of his career – though the final pass from Joel Moon looked forward. The winger was also safe under kicks and carried the ball strongly from his own line. The 2017 Grand Final will be remembered for the heroics of Rhinos second-rower Stevie Ward, who redefined the word ‘toughness’. The 23-year-old missed Leeds’ triumph two years ago due to a serious knee injury which kept him out of all but the final four games of last season.
Eight days before the title decider he sustained a dislocated shoulder in the semi-final win over Hull and had to undergo surgery to have it put back in, yet he played the full 80 minutes.
At one stage it looked like the shoulder had gone again, but he got through and displayed all the qualities which will make him a future Rhinos captain. Leeds were strong across the field.
But special mentions to Liam Sutcliffe, excellent in the left-centre, the strong-running Mitch Garbutt and Anthony Mullally – the first vegan Grand Final winner – who capped a terrific year with a strong contribution off the bench.
Rhinos are worthy champions. The competition format – which all teams are aware of and accept at the start of the season – rewards the team who turn up on the biggest stage and Leeds did exactly what was needed.
McDermott, now a four-time Grand Final-winning coach, may baffle fans and media alike at times, but when it comes to the title decider he invariably gets things right.
Castleford have been the best team this year, finishing 10 points clear of second-placed Leeds, but the occasion got to them. Being so close to the club’s first championship, defeat was agonising, but the manner of it was the most disappointing aspect.
Tigers never got into the game. Their big players had off days and they were outplayed across the board.
Very little went right and they made far too many errors, 18 in total.
Leeds also turned over some cheap ball, but when they did Cas – who turned down three kickable penalties early on – could not exploit it. Only Alex Foster’s try, converted by Luke Gale, on the final play, prevented a whitewash. Tigers – clearly disrupted by the loss of full-back Zak Hardaker, who was dropped two days before the game for breaching club rules – will benefit from the experience and the result should not detract from a fantastic campaign.
Leeds, though, were too good. After Briscoe’s opener, Kallum Watkins had a touchdown disallowed – Bentham overruling Child – for a knock-on over the line. Soon afterwards Hitchcox touched down from Gale’s kick, but Child – and then Bentham – spotted the no7 had run between team-mate Oliver Holmes. That was a tough call.
Eleven minutes into the second half Moon’s towering kick wasn’t taken by Eden and McGuire touched down. He added another, after Briscoe’s try, when Mike McMeeken fumbled Burrow’s low kick.
Eden had a touchdown disallowed by Bentham – Hitchcox’s foot was in touch as he passed him the ball – before Foster’s late score. Watkins converted three of Leeds’ tries, two from the touchline.
The Gale obstruction was Leeds’ only penalty. Tigers received three in the first half and two in the second.
Referee Child deserves credit for a job well done.