Twelve years ago this week Leeds Rhinos suffered one of their most agonising disappointments of the summer era.
Rhinos went into the Challenge Cup final against arch-rivals Bradford Bulls, at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, having won their 10 previous games in all competitions that season. But on the big stage they fell short – just – in a tense and controversial final, suffering their second successive defeat to Bradford in a Challenge Cup showpiece.
Leeds went into the game as slight favourites and buoyed by a dramatic extra-time win over St Helens in a classic semi-final two weeks earlier.
Danny McGuire, up to then a promising prospect, had announced his arrival as a big star with a two-try performance in that game, but there was a shock when the team sheets were handed in at Cardiff. Leeds boss Daryl Powell left McGuire out of his 17, instead opting to pick another youngster Rob Burrow on the bench.
As it turned out, Burrow – soon after coming on – was hurt in a tackle by Lee Gilmour just before half-time and played no further part.
Leeds’ line-up did include Aussie forward Matt Adamson, who had suffered a fractured cheekbone in the semi-final.
The final’s most famous incident came late on, with Leeds trailing 22-20. A penalty gave Rhinos skipper Kevin Sinfield an opportunity to kick his side level, but instead he opted to keep the pressure on a tiring Bulls defence, Leeds could not find a way through and Bradford held on to win by that two-point margin. After the game Rhinos’ management threatened to file an official protest about the performance of referee Russell Smith, with Powell claiming every 50-50 decision went against his team.
Leeds were particularly angry when Sinfield kicked for winger Mark Calderwood, who seemed set to out-pace Lesley Vainikolo, but the Bradford man brought him down and the chance was lost.
The Rhinos camp reckoned it should have been a penalty try – or at least a penalty – but Smith awarded a drop out.
The scores were level, 14-14, at the break, Robbie Paul and Vainikolo crossing for Bulls and Gary Connolly and Chris McKenna replying.
In the second half Jamie Peacock touched down for Bulls and David Furner scored a Leeds try. Bradford’s Paul Deacon kicked five goals, crucially one more than Sinfield. Connolly, won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.
Bradford Bulls 22
(Tries: Paul, Vainikolo, Peacock. Goals: Decon 5)
Leeds Rhinos 20
(Tries Connolly, McKenna, Furner. Goals: Sinfield 4)
Challenge Cup final, Millennium Stadium, April 26, 2003.
Bradford Bulls: Paul, Vaikona, Naylor, Hape, Vainikolo, Pryce, Deacon, Vagana, Lowes, Gartner, Radford, Peacock, Forshaw. Subs: Anderson, Gilmour, Parker, Pratt.
Leeds Rhinos: Connolly, Calderwood, McKenna, Senior, Cummins, Sinfield, Dunemann, Bailey, Diskin, McDermott, Walker, Adamson, Furner. Subs: Ward, McDonald, Burrow, Poching.
Referee: Russell Smith.