Inside RL: Can Leeds cope without the retiring legends? – Smith

Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai.
Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai.
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IN THE end, every minute did matter.

Going into the final 60 seconds of the Super League season, the league leaders’ shield was still up for grabs.

And with a minute left in the title decider, the Grand Final at Old Trafford, either side could yet have got their hands on the trophy.

In both cases, Leeds Rhinos came out on top to complete the finest season in their history and one of rugby league’s greatest achievements.

As an emotional and utterly drained Jamie Peacock commented last Saturday night, dreams really do come true.

For Leeds to send their three departing legends out on such a high was incredible and provided the season with a memorable final image.

Leeds will never be the most popular team among fans of other clubs, but few would begrudge Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai their glorious farewell.

Leuluai’s staggering revelation, made to this newspaper, that he has been playing for much of this season with an irregular heartbeat neatly sums up what this Leeds team is all about. They never give in. They trailed late in their last three games of the season, but on each occasion found a way to win.

The big challenge now is how Rhinos cope without – replace would be the wrong word – three of the finest players in their history.

Imports Adam Cuthbertson and Mitch Garbutt and the emergence of Brad Singleton as a consistent top-flight prop have gone some way to already filling the Peacock and Leuluai-sized hole.

But managing without Sinfield – captain, field kicker, goal kicker and organiser in chief – is another matter entirely.

Before his season-ending injury, Liam Sutcliffe, though still relatively inexperienced, showed signs of developing into a top-class stand-off and he is a try scorer, which is one of the few things Sinfield was not.

But the loss of Sinfield makes Danny McGuire an even more crucial member of Rhinos’ side. He has changed his game since his early days, when he was primarily a pacy support player.

He is now a genuine play-maker, with a fine kicking game and the organisational skills to marshall a team around the field, which is what Leeds will need next year.

So, despite having just enjoyed the finest campaign in their history – and arguably one of the best by any club – Leeds still have work to do over the off-season and questions to answer.

Rugby league’s domestic season has, encouragingly, ended on a high. With rugby union’s World Cup taking place at the same time as rugby league’s Grand Finals, comparison are inevitable.

And the 13-a-side code has done rather well.

The race for top spot in Super League was the closest yet, there was the drama of the million pound match – which also went to the wire – and one of the two top-flight semi-finals was a classic.

Australia’s NRL title-decider went into extra-time after an equalising touchdown on the final play of the 80 minutes, then Old Trafford witnessed the best of Super League’s 18 Grand Finals, in front of the event’s first capacity crowd.

The atmosphere last Saturday was one of the best at any game in this country in recent memory and the RFL deserve credit for not only selling the place out, but also creating such an outstanding occasion.

The decision to stage a union World Cup tie in Manchester on the same evening was clearly designed to deflect attention from the league showpiece, but – with England having already blown their chance of qualifying for the knockout stages – it backfired spectacularly.

The season is not yet over. The New Zealand touring team arrives in England on Monday for a three-Test series the host nation simply has to win.

The Kiwis are now the world’s best, but they are under-strength, due to injuries and it is a huge opportunity for England coach Steve McNamara and his men to continue the momentum which has been built up over the last few weeks.