THE 2005 season was a rollercoaster ride for Leeds Rhinos, who played some of the finest rugby seen from any team in the summer era, but ended up being second-best on all three domestic fronts.
Rhinos backed up from the previous season’s Super League triumph by winning the World Club Challenge against Canterbury Bulldogs at Elland Road. Up to late August they had lost only three games in all competitions and seemed untouchable at times, but the Challenge Cup final proved their undoing.
Leeds lost heavily at home to Bradford Bulls the week before their clash with Hull, played at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Rhinos coach Tony Smith took a risk by sticking with Keith Senior – who had suffered an ankle injury in the loss to Bradford – in the centres and leaving out prop Barrie McDermott. The gamble backfired. Senior hobbled through until half-time, but played no further part, while McDermott was missed badly up front as Hull’s pack took control.
Even so, Rhinos led as late as the 77th minute, until Paul Cooke went over for the game’s final try and Danny Brough’s conversion won the Cup for Hull.
Leeds lost their next two Super League fixtures and, despite a home win over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in their final game of the regular season, had to settle for second spot on the table, three points behind St Helens.
They travelled to Knowsley Road in the play-offs and pulled off a shock 19-16 victory to secure a return to Old Trafford, but were beaten 15-6 by Bradford in the title decider – a re-match from the previous season.
So Rhinos finished the year as runners-up in the league, Challenge Cup and play-offs, though the World Club trophy was reward for their early-season efforts.
“It was tough on the back of 2004, when we were so dominant,” recalled McDermott, who played his final game for Leeds in the Grand Final loss to Bradford.
“The year before we broke the monopoly of Wigan, Saints and Bulls and got to lift the Super League trophy and we still had a good smattering of young local players, plus some experience as well.
“There was a real good camaraderie and when you have winning teams you have an extra bond – I have been retired quite a few years, but there’s still a special bond with the players I played with in 2004 and 2005.”
For McDermott, the World Club Challenge win over Canterbury Bulldogs was a career high. A full-house of 37,029 packed into Elland Road and the front-rower said: “It was an amazing night.
“That was the full set for me – it meant I’d won the league leaders’ shield, Super League, Challenge Cup and World Club Challenge, so it was the culmination of my career.
“Until this year I was the only Leeds player who had won all four. In terms of highlights it was definitely up there, but one other game that really stands out from 2005 was when we beat Wigan 70-0 at Headingley.
“I should have scored a hat-trick that night, but I dropped the ball over the line. I got two tries after that.”
Despite three isolated slip-ups – against Wakefield, St Helens and London, in a game played in Perpignan – Rhinos seemed to be storming towards a league and Cup double, before the wheels came off in August.
“I am not sure what went wrong,” McDermott admitted. “I do remember going into the Grand Final really confident and feeling really sick and disappointed afterwards. I was ending my career after it and moving on to different things and I wanted to finish on a high. The injuries I’d got on top of me a bit and I didn’t know I was going to go back and play a year for Widnes. I really thought we were going to beat Bradford, but they had brought Adrian Morley over from the NRL and they had Iestyn Harris in their team and they played better than us on the night.
“My personal thoughts were all over the place. I was retiring, but I had an inkling I wasn’t ready and that proved to be right, but – even though we didn’t win – it was a great team to be part of.”
McDermott – now in charge of player welfare at Leeds – said he is proud to have been in at the start of what became a special period in the club’s history.
“It was the emergence of the players who have been the cornerstone of the success of the past decade and I was privileged to play with them,” he stated. “They have gone on and done some special things.
“They were a group of lads who worked hard and didn’t mind getting their hands dirty and doing the tough stuff. They had talent and skill and the attitude to get through the tough times as well as the good times.
“It was a fast, agile, skilful team and we played very much the way Warrington (coached by Tony Smith) do now. It’s a good, enjoyable way to play – ad-lib, play what you see kind of stuff.
“There was a real balance of youth and experience, enthusiasm and knowledge and Tony Smith as coach really demanded and got the best out of the team throughout the year.
“At times it wasn’t a question of if we were going to win, but by how many. When we didn’t win we were shocked as much as disappointed, because we had so much potential and so much going for us.”
Key player of 2005: Marcus Bai
POWERFUL WINGER Marcus Bai was a big hit with Leeds Rhinos during a two-year stint in the mid 2000s.
Born in Papua New Guinea, on October 11, 1972, Bai played for Kumuls at the 1995 World Cup and had a season with Hull two years later.
He moved on to Gold Coast Chargers in Australia and was then signed by Melbourne Storm ahead of their inaugural campaign in what is now the NRL.
He scored 12 tries in the 1998 season and was named Dally M winger of the year, then was ever-present for Melbourne the following season when they won the Grand Final.
Bai was a try scorer in Storm’s 2000 World Club Challenge victory over St Helens, at Wigan, and played for PNG in that year’s World Cup.
In total he made 138 appearances for Melbourne, scoring 70 tries, before Rhinos signed him ahead of the 2004 season.
Quick, squat and incredibly tough, Bai was the sort of winger who preferred to run over an opponent than go around him.
That made him hugely popular at Leeds from the word go, the 31-year-old scoring a hat-trick on his debut in a big Headingley win over London Broncos.
Leeds were the dominant force in 2004, finishing nine points clear at the top of Super League and beating Bradford Bulls in the Grand Final, after Bai had touched down three times against Wigan Warriors in the final eliminator.
Despite his power on defence and in attack, Bai is possibly best-remembered for being the victim of a huge hit by Sonny Bill Williams during Rhinos’ 2005 World Club Challenge win over Canterbury Bulldogs at Elland Road.
He recovered to play in that year’s Challenge Cup and Grand Final defeats, before moving to Bradford Bulls for 2006.
Bai scored 26 tries in 30 appearances during the 2004 campaign – only Danny McGuire with a club record 39 crossed more times for Leeds that year – and added 19 to his tally the following year, when he played 33 times.
2005 in numbers
3: Minutes left when Hull’s Paul Cooke scored the try which condemned Leeds to defeat in the Challenge Cup final.
4: Players made their debut – Gareth Ellis, Ashley Gibson, Scott Murrell and Lee Smith.
22: Points scored by Ashley Gibson on his debut in the 74-0 Super League win at Leigh Centurions. He grabbed a hat-trick of tries and five goals.
35: Touchdowns by top try scorer Mark Calderwood.
153: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield.
328: Kevin Sinfield’s points tally, including six tries and two drop goals.
1,152: Leeds’ points total in Super League, a club record.
17,011: Average attendance at Headingley.
37,028: Crowd at Elland Road for Rhinos’ World Club Challenge win over Canterbury Bulldogs.
65,356: Attendance at the Grand Final.