CHIEF EXECUTIVE Gary Hetherington reckons a major turning point in Leeds Rhinos’ season was a game they weren’t involved in.
Rhinos snapped out of a three-match losing run to secure the First Utility Super League leaders’ shield and a place in tomorrow’s Grand Final against Wigan Warriors.
Leeds looked set to be knocked off top spot three weeks ago when they lost at home to Castleford Tigers, but Wigan – who trailed them only on points difference – failed to take advantage away to St Helens a day later.
“The finale to the season has been remarkable – there has been drama and excitement all the way and there has been so much happening it is hard to take it all in,” Hetherington said.
“For us, St Helens winning in the last minute against Wigan was a lifeline. We then had all the drama at Huddersfield, with us winning the game right at the end and the helicopter [which had been heading to Wigan] delivering the shield.
“That set up a special night at Headingley last week for the semi-final against St Helens, which was a great game, a great atmosphere and a worthy result.”
All that has been building up to a classic title decider tomorrow, according to the Leeds chief. He added: “It’s extra-special because it is going to be the first sell-out we’ve had.
“There’s going to be a terrific support from Leeds and we’ve noticed there is even more interest in the city than normal.
“Rugby league is very much in the spotlight at present and there is such an historical context to it, with us having a chance of winning all the available trophies and it possibly being a fairytale finish for Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai.
“You could not write a better script and I just hope fairytales do come true.”
Hetherington reckons his pre-season claim that this is Leeds’ best-ever squad has already been proved correct.
He said he received “around 20 emails and letters” from upset fans after his comments appeared in The Yorkshire Evening Post, but insisted: “I knew it would be our best-ever squad, because we wouldn’t have people like Kylie, Kevin and Jamie beyond this year.
“We’ve started to see the emergence of people like Stevie Ward and Liam Sutcliffe and it has been an outstanding season already. Going into the last game, we have got every [major] available trophy apart from the Harry Sunderland [Grand Final man of the match award] and the Super League trophy.
“We have got the Challenge Cup, league leaders’ shield, Lance Todd Trophy, Man of Steel, coach of the year and club of the year. I am confident we can go to Old Trafford and get the right result and it will be a special weekend for the city, with the celebration at the [First Direct] Arena on Sunday.”
Hetherington said Rhinos’ preparations have been modelled on those for their six previous Grand Final victories and he believes the adversity faced this year makes even reaching the final a “remarkable” achievement.
“We’ve had four big losses, with Liam Sutcliffe, Paul Aiton, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Stevie Ward all picking up season-ending injuries,” he said.
“I don’t know of any other squad who could have coped as well as we have.”