IT IS six years since Leeds Rhinos last picked up a league leaders’ shield.
Rhinos travelled to the Willows, home of Salford City Reds, on September 11, 2009, needing a win from their final game of the regular season to be certain of finishing top of the Super League table.
It turned out to be a far from straight forward task, but coach Brian McClennan’s men got the job done and went on to qualify for the play-offs in pole position.
Speculation before the game concerned the fitness of skipper Kevin Sinfield, who had suffered a suspected fractured cheekbone in a tough 18-10 home win over St Helens a week earlier.
He was left out of the side for the trip to Salford, with Carl Ablett switching from his regular second-row role into the stand-off position.
Also missing was Danny McGuire, on compassionate leave and suspended duo Keith Senior and Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
Salford could finish no higher than 13th – second from bottom – but seemed determined to send Robbie Paul out on a high note in his final Super League game.
Leeds got off to a poor start, going 12-0 down early on to tries by Luke Adamson and John Wilshere, who converted both.
At that stage nerves were jangling among the travelling support, in a 6,101 crowd, but Kallum Watkins got Rhinos back in the game with a brilliantly-executed try and then Jay Pitts – signed earlier in the year from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – crossed on his debut.
Lee Smith converted both to square the scores at the interval and the visitors went ahead soon afterwards when Luke Burgess plunged over for his first try of the season, from Rob Burrow’s pass.
Burrow’s kick then created a try for Brent Webb, before Ablett touched down and Smith’s fifth goal made it 30-12 on 70 minutes. With second-placed St Helens losing at home to Catalan Dragons, Rhinos had one hand on the shield.
Salford, though, refused to throw in the towel and set up a tense finish as Stuart Littler and Stefan Ratchford – finishing a sensational long-range move – both crossed. Wilshere – also playing his final game for Salford – added the extras, but Leeds held on for a 30-24 victory.
There were few celebrations after the final hooter.
Despite what was at stake, the game was not televised and the Rhinos players posed for a quick team picture with the shield, which was presented on the pitch, before heading to the changing rooms, knowing the hard work was still to come.