Leeds Rhinos Nostalgia: Charting Wendell Sailor’s brief encounter with Leeds
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In the space of a week, 23 years ago, one of Australian rugby league’s biggest names made two guest appearances for the club, scoring a sensational try and attracting a total of 24,000 fans to Headingley.
In those days, early in the ‘summer era’, Rhinos began their pre-season campaign with games on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, though the latter was eventually axed after gates began to fall.
Brisbane Broncos winger Wendell Sailor was a superstar around the turn of the century, playing 16 Tests – 11 under the Australian Rugby League banner and five for the Aussies’ Super League team – as well as starring at the 2000 World Cup when he scored nine tries in five games.
He switched codes in 2001, making a big-money move to rugby union and going on to play 37 Tests for the Wallabies, but Sailor had first dipped a toe into the 15-a-side game with Leeds Tykes in the unlikely setting of the English second tier.
Sailor scored 15 tries in just 13 appearances for Headingley-based Tykes after they signed him in an effort to increase publicity and crowds at home matches.
One of those was a long-range effort which saw him shrug off 12 defenders on an incredible run to the line, still regarded as possibly the club’s greatest-ever touchdown.
But before that, Sailor played in Rhinos’ Boxing Day and January 1 matches, thrilling the crowd at the latter with a brilliant score in a 26-21 victory over Castleford Tigers.
It came from a kick by Castleford’s Francis Maloney and was the only real chance he had in either game, Sailor getting the 10,000 crowd on their feet as he showed the visiting defence a clean pair of heels in a thrilling 60-metre sprint.
Six days earlier, 14,000 spectators turned up to see Sailor in action when Leeds beat Halifax 12-6.
Hopes he would sign a longer-term contract with Rhinos came to nothing as Sailor – who had also been courted by Wigan Warriors – opted for a new career in the rival code, though he did return briefly to league’s NRL before retiring in 2010.
Another of Australia’s great wingers hit the new year headlines 14 years earlier, when Eric Grothe made one of Leeds’ most famous debuts.
Known as the Guru, Grothe was a star of Australia’s all-conquering sides of the early 1980s, playing eight Tests from 1982-84.
Including matches against club teams, he played a total of 14 games on the 1982 Kangaroo tour, scoring 21 tries.
Leeds splashed the cash to sign him on a short-term contract during the Aussie off-season at the start of 1985 and, despite seeing little of the ball, he touched down 14 times in 16 appearances.
The first of those was on New Year’s Day, when Leigh were the visitors to Headingley.
Grothe was the big attraction for a crowd of 7,820 and he delivered by powering in for a hat-trick.