HAS THERE ever been an end to a season like it?
Never-say-die Leeds Rhinos snatched the League Leaders’ Shield from Wigan Warriors’ grasp with a scarcely believable 20-16 win at Huddersfield Giants last night.
A magnificent match had the most astonishing finale as Leeds rallied from eight points down with six minutes left.
Giants seemed to have won the game and secured second spot in the table, behind Wigan who were winning at home to Castleford – when Danny Brough’s penalty goal made it 16-8.
But from somewhere, Leeds found a new lease of life. Tom Briscoe scored at the corner with 5 minutes 16 seconds left, then just 1min 25secs from time Rhinos were awarded a penalty.
A draw would have secured a home semi-final, while Leeds needed a win to finish top. After some discussion, Sinfield took the two.
Giants’ restart gave Leeds one last set and on the final play, Danny McGuire chipped over the defence, Scott Grix let it bounce and Ryan Hall picked up, got past Grix and out-paced Jermaine McGillvary to cross as the hooter sounded.
There was an agonising wait as the video referees were consulted, but the try was given and Leeds had finished top of the table for the first time since 2009.
They will play St Helens at Headingley Carnegie next Friday, 24 hours after Huddersfield Giants visit Wigan.
Leeds have been the best team over the course of the season and deserve the hubcap. It was an impressive return to form after three straight defeats.
The finish was worthy of a classic match. With both teams having a chance of finishing top, the game had a Cup final feel and it was close throughout.
Giants looked more threatening in the opening quarter, despite Leeds taking a brief lead, but Rhinos rallied and applied heavy pressure before the break.
Only two points separated the sides at the interval and Giants squared matters eight minutes after the break.
It stayed that way until 15 minutes from time when Giants scored their second converted try, followed quickly by the decisive penalty.
Both defences were outstanding and a draw would have been a fair result, but Leeds never gave up.
It was their strongest line-up since the Challenge Cup final, with only Mitch Achurch missing from the team which thrashed Hull KR four weeks ago.
Rob Burrow – who suffered a quad injury at Wembley – returned at hooker and Brett Delaney, who wasn’t named in the initial 19, due to illness, was among the substitutes.
In positional changes, Mitch Garbutt and Brad Singleton started at prop, with Jamie Peacock dropping to the bench and Adam Cuthbertson moving to loose-forward.
Jordan Lilley, the only member of last night’s team not to play in the final, continued in the side after his first start last week, but was among the substitutes and didn’t get on.
There were 14 points scored in the first 40 minutes, which was an accurate reflection of how tight and tense the game was.
Just eight days after suffering a severe dead leg, Sinfield had a fine game and his pass, collected by Stevie Ward on the half-volley, created the opening try after nine minutes, which was the first time Leeds had opened the scoring since Wembley. Sinfield converted.
Ward, who has been struggling with an Achilles problem, made a strong opening to the game, but went off hurt after half an hour.
He was holding a shoulder, which was a concern given his previous problems in that area. He returned in the second half, but was helped off again late on with a leg injury. Hall dropped the restart from Ward’s try into touch and following the scrum Jack Hughes and Leroy Cudjoe linked across the line and McGillvary, Super League’s in-form winger, crossed at the corner.
Craig Kopczak had dropped Danny Brough’s pass in the build-up, but video referees Ben Thaler and Peter Brooke decided the ball had gone backwards.
Giants could have had a second after a spell of heavy pressure, but Brett Ferres – back in the team after a biceps injury – dropped the pass from Brough with the line wide open.
Leeds turned up the pressure in the late stages of the first half, but Giants’ defence is the best in the competition for a reason and they stood up to the barrage.
They did a particularly good job on Cuthbertson, shutting down the Man of Steel nominee’s offloads which have been such a threat for Leeds this year.
With four minutes of the half remaining Giants’ Jack Hughes was penalised for obstruction 40 metres out in front of the posts – the second-row pleading guilty by stopping before the whistle – and Sinfield took the two to edge Leeds into a slender half-time advantage.
McGuire would have given the visitors more breathing space on the final play of the half, but he was brilliantly shut down by Ferres and Grix.
Rhinos had an astonishing let off at the start of the second half, after Luke Robinson seemed to have put Giants ahead.
Hall’s terrible pass was spilled by Zak Hardaker five metres out, Robinson toed the ball over the line and looked to have touched down.
Referee Robert Hicks handed the decision on and the video referees spotted the No 7 had lost the ball. Brough levelled things moments later with a penalty, after interference by Carl Ablett and from the restart Ferres sent Joe Wardle dashing away, but he held on too long and lost the ball in a tackle by Hardaker and Briscoe.
On 53 minutes McGuire touched down from a high kick, but Hicks penalised Peacock for a shove on Grix.
But that was brief respite for Leeds, who were under the cosh constantly. A dubious knock-on call against Sinfield and Hall being shoved into touch kept Giants camped in the visitors’ 20, but some stunning goal line defence kept them out.
At the other end, Hardaker was held up over the line after a surging run by Garbutt and Ward’s clever break.
Leeds then forced a drop out, but at the end of that set Sinfield’s kick was taken by McGillvary.
Giants went upfield, Brough’s bomb bounced away from the defence and Cudjoe picked up and passed inside to Jamie Ellis, who crossed untouched.
Brough’s conversion made it 14-8 and Giants went two scores clear moments later after Brough convinced Hicks to award him a penalty in front of the sticks, for interference by Peacock.
Leeds pulled a try back with five minutes left when Hardaker and Kallum Watkins combined to put Briscoe over, Sinfield landing a touchline goal. There was still drama to come as Hardaker went down in Kopczak’s tackle, replays showing it was a shoulder charge.
Sinfield levelled the scores and set up the unforgettable finish. The penalty count finished 7-4 in Rhinos’ favour – 3-1 to Leeds in the first half.