BOTH PARTIES took a gamble when Brian McClennan was appointed coach of Leeds Rhinos ahead of the 2008 season.
McClennan had enjoyed a successful spell in charge of New Zealand – masterminding their win over Australia in the 2005 Tri-Nations final at Elland Road – but was a rookie in terms of coaching at elite club level.
And the Kiwi, known by everyone as Bluey, was stepping into big shoes, taking over the helm at the reigning Super League champions after previous boss Tony Smith had guided Leeds to their second Grand Final win in four seasons.
It seemed the only way was down, but in fact McClennan matched – and possibly even bettered – Smith’s achievement of the previous year.
Rhinos again finished second in the league table, a point behind St Helens. And for the second successive season they went on to lift the big prize with victory over Saints in the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
Matching what Smith had managed in 2005, McClennan got his spell in charge off to a flying start by overseeing a memorable 11-4 victory over Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge at Elland Road, after winning his first four league games.
Rhinos lost only six times in the league, but successive defeats at Harlequins and then home to Saints in June – part of a run of three losses in four games – ultimately cost them the league leaders’ shield.
Leeds went into the Grand Final as underdogs after being crushed 38-10 at Knowsley Road in the qualifying play-off and then struggling to overcome Wigan Warriors 18-14 in a home final eliminator a week later.
For prop Nick Scruton, the title decider was bitter-sweet. It was the biggest game of his career and marked his swansong at his hometown club, after he signed a deal for the following season with arch-rivals Bradford Bulls.
“My last game for Leeds was the Grand Final and it was all a bit emotional,” recalled the now-Wakefield Trinity Wildcats forward, who made his Leeds debut as a 17-year-old in 2002.
“It goes that fast it’s hard to remember it all and I remember the week before more than the game itself.
“The week before, in the semi against Wigan, I broke my nose and broke my wrist. One of the big things I remember is sitting in the waiting room at Chapel Allerton Hospital and being told I’d broken my wrist.
“I thought that was it, I was going to miss the Grand Final and my Leeds career was over. I was devastated, but Bluey said ‘it’s your call – if you think you can play, it’s up to you’.
“I had a talk with the medical staff and they said they’d jab it up if I thought I could play, so to go from thinking I wasn’t playing, to playing and winning the Grand Final in my last game, it was all a bit mad.”
After the drubbing at Saints, Leeds’ prospects of winning the final seemed about as bright as Scruton’s of playing in it, but both dreams came true.
“They really did a number on us in the semi-final,” Scruton recalled. “We went into the final as underdogs, but it’s what Leeds do – if they get to a final they give themselves a chance.
“That’s what we did and it all came together for us at the right time. JP (Jamie Peacock) has a way of getting people up for games and he was really influential that week and he was immense in the final as well.”
Another huge influence was McClennan, who believed all along it would be Rhinos’ year.
Scruton said: “He had an easy team to coach. There was Kevin Sinfield, JP, Keith Senior, Ali Lauitiiti, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow…. What he was was really good at getting us motivated. The team looked after itself and he got us up for games when it was needed.
“He was brilliant with me, especially after I said I was leaving. I could have been frozen out, especially with going to Bradford, but he stuck by me and that is something I will always be grateful for.”
The Grand Final victory was particularly pleasing for Scruton after he had made just two appearances, both as a substitute, during the previous campaign, due to a brace of long-term injuries.
For Rhinos, it was an historic year as they retained the title for the first time in the club’s history. There were no major pre-season recruits, but current first team star Kallum Watkins made his debut as a teenager and Luke Burgess and Ben Jones-Bishop were also introduced to the senior side.
French forward Eric Anselme played four times during a mid-season loan spell and Michael Haley and Joe Chandler both made their only Leeds appearance, in an incredible 18-12 home win over Castleford Tigers in June. Stripped of many of their star men, due to England duty, Leeds fielded Danny Allan and Brent Webb in the halves, had Jamie Jones-Buchanan playing at centre and a bench of Chandler, Haley, Ben Kaye and Danny Williams. Tigers took a 12-0 lead, but tries by Lee Smith, Webb and Matt Diskin secured a memorable comeback win.
LEEDS LAD Lee Smith played the game of his life in the 2008 Super League Grand Final.
It was his second appearance on the big stage, having lined up as a winger in the previous year’s Old Trafford decider against St Helens.
He occupied one of the flanks when Leeds lost to Saints in the 2008 qualifying play-off and again the following week in the final eliminator victory over Wigan Warriors, but was switched to full-back for the championship match.
Rhinos seemed to have suffered a knockout blow when star No 1 Brent Webb was ruled out of the final due to a back injury sustained when he lifted a weight in training.
Rather than try to cover up the loss of one of his key players, Leeds coach Brian McClennan announced 72 hours before the title showdown that Webb was out and Smith would take over as the last line of defence.
It was a show of confidence in the 22-year-old and he repaid his coach’s faith with a sensational display which earned him the Harry Sunderland Trophy as Grand Final man of the match.
Smith scored the first of Leeds’ four tries and landed a 40-20 kick – Rhinos’ first and only of the season – which set field position for a vital touchdown by Danny McGuire.
The former Drighlington junior was also safe under the high bomb and made several key tackles in a performance which earned him a call-up to the England squad for that autumn’s World Cup.
Academy player of the year in 2003, Smith made his senior debut two years later. He became an established first teamer in 2006 and played and scored in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Grand Finals, filling a different role – wing, full-back and centre – on each occasion.
He left Rhinos after the 2009 title triumph to try his hand at rugby union with London Wasps, but returned to Leeds mid-way through 2010. Smith joined Wakefield Trinity Wildcats during the 2012 season, initially on loan and then a permanent deal.
He returned to rugby union earlier this year, when he signed for Newcastle Falcons.
2008 season in numbers:
1: Point Leeds finished behind league leaders St Helens
2: Leeds’ position in the Super League table
9: Players made their Rhinos debut – Luke Burgess, Danny Allan, Ben Kaye, Simon Worrall, Michael Haley, Kallum Watkins, Joe Chandler, Ben Jones-Bishop, Eric Anselme
26: Touchdowns for top try scorer Brent Webb
140: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield
293: Kevin Sinfield’s points tally, including four tries and three drop goals
863: Points scored by Rhinos in the regular season
413: Points conceded by Rhinos in the regular season
16,756: Average league attendance at Headingley
68,810: Crowd at the Grand Final
World Club Challenge: Friday, February 29, at Elland Road. Leeds Rhinos 11 (Try Donald; Goals Sinfield 3; Drop goal Sinfield) Melbourne Storm 4 (Try Hoffman).
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Donald, Toopi, Senior, Smith, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield. Subs Lauitiiti, Bailey, Scruton, Ablett.
Super League Grand Final: Saturday, October 4, at Old Trafford. Leeds Rhinos 24 (Tries McGuire 2, Smith, Hall; Goals Sinfield four) St Helens 16 (Tries Graham, Gidley, Gardner; Goals Long 2).
Leeds Rhinos: Smith, Hall, Ablett, Senior, Donald, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield. Subs Scruton, Lauitiiti, Kirke, Bailey.