Peter Smith: Forward-thinking Rhinos stand to benefit from ground redevelopment

Paul Sterling scores for Leeds Rhinos in front of the South Stand  during the World Club Challenge against Adelaide Rams in 1997.
Paul Sterling scores for Leeds Rhinos in front of the South Stand during the World Club Challenge against Adelaide Rams in 1997.
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LEEDS RHINOS fans are getting used to emotional farewells.

Two years ago three of the club’s greatest players bowed out and it is 12 months since the death of Leeds and rugby league stalwart Harry Jepson OBE.

Eric Grothe.

Eric Grothe.

This season two more legends, absolutely integral to Rhinos’ dominance of Super League from 2004-2015, will play their final game for the club.

And tomorrow the backdrop to all that success – and some of rugby league’s most historic and memorable moments – will enjoy its final hurrah.

The South Stand is the heartbeat of Headingley Stadium and therefore the Rhinos.

It is difficult to imagine what home games will be like without it, but its time is almost up.

Luke Robinson.

Luke Robinson.

After tomorrow’s game against St Helens, the stand will be closed and demolished.

A new two-tier structure, including seats and a standing terrace, will be fully open at some stage in 2019.

The present South Stand was used for the first time when Leeds beat York 12-8 on August 29, 1931 and, over the past 86 years, it has thrilled to the exploits of some remarkable players.

Eric Harris scored eight tries – a club joint-record – in a Headingley win over Bradford Northern in only the second game after the South Stand was opened.

In 1982 another Australian wing Eric Grothe made a lasting impression by running over the top of Alan Smith – himself one of Leeds’ all-time greats – along the South Stand touchline, before signing for Leeds three years later.

In more recent times, Paul Sterling scored one of Headingley’s great tries in front of the South Stand against Adelaide Rams in the World Club Championship 20 years ago.

And it was on that touchline, at the other end of the field, that Ali Lauitiiti produced his try of the season in 2006.

Most of the game’s outstanding heroes have played in front of the South Stand, the likes of Lewis Jones, John Holmes and Kevin Sinfield for Leeds and countless others in opposition colours. It is a link with the past as well as a ‘second home’ for generations of fans, but nothing lasts forever.

The structure, which originally had a capacity of 13,000 and was the largest of its type in the world, was condemned several years ago and its replacement is long overdue.

In an ideal world the stand would be patched up and allowed to remain, but that is unrealistic.

The club’s decision to include seats in the new South Stand has met with understandable criticism, but it was inevitable.

Headingley is the most atmospheric ground in the sport, particularly under lights on a Friday night, but has lost its status as one of British rugby league’s top venues for semi-finals and representative matches. New facilities will reverse that trend. The back-to-back North Stand, shared with Yorkshire County Cricket Club and opened in 1933, is also well past its sell-by date and will go at the end of this season.

When Keith McLellan, captain of Leeds’ 1957 Challenge Cup-winning team, visited Headingley a few months ago he pointed out North Stand seats he had helped install during his playing days, when he also assisted on the groundstaff. That – and the fact the stand was under construction when Yorkshire’s Hedley Verity took his world record 10 wickets for 10 runs – highlights how time has moved on.

The North Stand’s demise will be overshadowed by that of its neighbour across the pitch.

The South Stand is where Headingley’s unique atmosphere is generated and will be missed by everyone.

Former Castleford, Wigan and Huddersfield half-back Luke Robinson recently recalled humming “Marching on Together” to himself for days after playing in away games against Rhinos.

But it is fans that create atmosphere, not bricks and metalwork.

Seats and executive facilities will bring Headingley into the 21st century, but the hardcore will still get to stand up and there is no real reason why the current vibrant character of the stadium can’t continue.