Since super League began in 1996 Leeds Rhinos have pulled off some astonishing fightbacks and one of the earliest – and most remarkable – was in a game 17 years ago this week.
After losing to Castleford Tigers in their first competitive match under coach Graham Murray, a Challenge Cup tie at Headingley, Leeds made a flying start to their league campaign with six successive victories. But it looked like their winning run was set to end when they visited Sheffield Eagles on Saturday, May 23, 1998. The South Yorkshire side had pulled off one of the sport’s greatest shocks just 21 days earlier, defeating Wigan Warriors 17-8 in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. They seemed on course to claim another notable scalp in front of an 8,500 crowd at Don Valley Stadium as they opened a 23-4 lead deep into the second half. The final two of Eagles’ points came through a penalty kick from Leeds old boy Marcus Vassilakopoulos, awarded after Rhinos’ Adrian Morley had been sent-off for a high tackle.
Down to 12 men and 19 points adrift with only a quarter of the game remaining, Leeds appeared dead and buried. Even when Paul Sterling went over in the corner from Richie Blackmore’s pass – for his second try of the game – and Iestyn Harris landed a magnificent touchline conversion to cut the gap to three scores, Eagles thought they were safe. Thirteen minutes from time Francis Cummins touched down and Harris landed his second goal, from the opposite touchline to his earlier kick. Leeds now trailed 23-16 and the momentum was beginning to swing. With six minutes left, Daryl Powell – playing against his former club – put Graham Holroyd over, Harris added the extras and it was a one-point ball game.
Then, as the stadium clock showed 77 minutes played, Eagles were penalised by referee Stuart Cummings for a ball steal inside Rhinos’ half. Sheffield skipper Paul Broadbent complained a little too loudly and the home side were marched 10 metres closer their own line. That brought the penalty to within kicking distance. The YEP’s report stated: “Harris must have ice water in his veins. As 5,000 Rhinos fans held their breath, the Welsh wizard cooly slammed over the match-winning kick, to scenes of delirium.” The hooter went and Rhinos had won 24-23. Anything but an Eagles win had seemed impossible for most of the game as the home side dominated. Paul Carr, Waisale Sovatabua, Keith Senior and Nick Pinkney scored their tries, with Vassilakopoulos kicking three goals and a drop.
Sheffield Eagles 23
(Tries: Carr, Sovatabua, Senior, Pinkney. Goals: Vassilakopoulos 3. Drop goal Vassilakopoulos)
Leeds Rhinos 24
(Tries: Sterling 2, Cummins, Holroyd. Goals: Harris 4).
SUPer league round seven, May 23, 1998.
Sheffield Eagles: Sovatabua, Pinkney, Taewa, Senior, Crowther, Stephens, Vassilakopoulos, Broadbent, Lawless, Laughton, Carr, Shaw, Doyle. Subs: Watson, Turner, Molloy, Wood.
Leeds Rhinos: Harris, Sterling, Blackmore, Godden, Cummins, Kemp, Sheridan, Masella, Lawford, Fleary, Morley, Farrell, Powell. Subs St Hilaire, Holroyd, Mathiou, Hay.
Referee: Stuart Cummings.