Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield produced a valiant display of courage and commitment to lead his side to a famous victory over Warrington as the Rhinos once more defied the odds to retain their Super League crown.
The veteran stand-off scored a try and kicked five goals from as many attempts, but it was his bravery in defying two crushing injury blows that did more than anything to inspire his side in front of a crowd of 70,676 at Old Trafford.
It also earned him the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match as Leeds made a mockery of the final league placings for the second successive year by winning the title from fifth.
The victory enabled Rhinos to became Super League’s most successful club, with six championships since the competition began in 1996, while former England captain Jamie Peacock celebrated his eighth victory on his record-breaking 10th appearance.
However, most of the plaudits will go to Sinfield, who looked to be playing on auto pilot for most of his 78th consecutive Leeds appearance after twice being flattened in crunching collisions but got up each time to inspire his team in trademark fashion.
Sinfield has now led his side to all six Grand Final wins in just nine glorious years to confirm his status as the greatest captain in Leeds’ history and increase his side’s love affair with Manchester.
The Rhinos have faltered on the last Saturday of August in each of the last three years to see Challenge Cup glory slip from their grasp, yet they discover a spring in their step when autumn arrives.
Yet again they built momentum throughout the play-offs and demonstrated that, once they gain a sniff of the finishing line, they prove peerless.
It proved too much for Warrington, who were hot favourites to end a 57-year wait to be crowned champion on their maiden Old Trafford appearance.
This time the rain stayed away and a fast track made for an open contest, with Leeds demonstrating they are not just a wet-weather team.
Despite their local knowledge, however, Leeds took some time to settle and they went behind after only three minutes when Warrington half-back Richie Myler, their most impressive player, nipped between forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Peacock to score a try from his side’s first meaningful attack.
Brett Hodgson kicked the first of his three goals to put the Wolves 6-0 up and Leeds’ hearts sank further when the talismanic Sinfield crumbled in a heap following a tackle by Ben Westwood and Micky Higham.
But the Rhinos captain got to his feet and sparked a purple passage of play that saw his side seize control.
His cut-out pass got left winger Ryan Hall over on 11 minutes only for referee Richard Silverwood to rule it forward, but the Yorkshiremen drew level seven minutes later.
Warrington winger Joel Monaghan could only palm the ball from Sinfield’s high kick into the grateful hands of Leeds centre Carl Ablett and Sinfield was on his shoulder to take the final pass and register his first Grand Final try.
The lightning bursts of Rob Burrow had the Wolves constantly back-pedalling and the Rhinos duly went in front on 25 minutes with a Sinfield penalty.
It got even better for Leeds when Danny McGuire’s long pass found right winger Ben Jones-Bishop, who bumped off his opposite number Chris Riley and stepped inside full-back Hodgson to touch down.
Sinfield kicked his second conversion to extend his side’s lead to 14-6 but a crucial knock-on by Ablett gave Warrington the perfect attacking position and they took advantage to score their second try, stand-off Lee Briers’ long pass getting right winger Joel Monaghan over.
Hodgson kicked his second conversion and levelled the scores on the stroke of half-time with a penalty, and they looked the more likely victors after Sinfield took another fearful blow early in the second half following a clash of heads with Michael Monaghan.
Once again Sinfield rose to his feet but only in time to see Hodgson feed the ball from dummy half to Leeds-born centre Ryan Atkins, who crashed over for his side’s third try.
However, the Wolves were forced to defend for most of the third quarter. A string of penalties enabled the Rhinos to lay siege to their opponents line and the pressure paid off on 58 minutes when the impressive Ablett took Shaun Lunt’s short pass to crash over for his side’s third try.
Sinfield maintained his accuracy with his fourth goal to edge his side into a two-point lead, and Leeds made sure of the win when Ablett worked Hall over for a fourth try nine minutes from the end.