Second best again as Bulls deservedly take trophy Leeds Rhinos 6 Bradford bulls 15 ENGAGE SUPER LEAGUE Grand Final by PETER SMITH
THE final game of Leeds Rhinos' season summed up their entire year – it was a case of what might have been.
Rhinos' 15-6 Grand Final defeat by Bradford Bulls at Old Trafford saw them end the campaign having finished second in all three domestic competitions – the Challenge Cup, Super League and the Grand Final series.
That is tough to take – particularly as the Challenge Cup and Grand Final defeats came just seven weeks apart – but in the final analysis, Rhinos could have few complaints about the result at Old Trafford.
Bulls were the better side for most of the 80 minutes and their scrambling defence, particularly in the last quarter, was outstanding.
But Leeds did have their chances and had Chev Walker been awarded a try 13 minutes after the interval, when Bradford led by just two points, the result could have been different.
Matt Diskin made a break from dummy-half and slung out a pass which was touched on by Bulls' Shontayne Hape to Walker, who seemed to have beaten Michael Withers' tackle to touch down by the flag.
Referee Ashley Klein handed the decision on to video judge David Campbell who ruled – after an agonising delay – that Walker had not got downward pressure.
It was the sort of decision which has gone for the attacking team on occasions this year, but perhaps Campbell had a previous ruling at the back of his mind.
Just minutes earlier he had disallowed a Hape touchdown, deciding Lesley Vainikolo had obstructed Mark Calderwood from Paul Deacon's kick.
Both decisions went against the attacking team, so Rhinos could not quibble too much – but if Walker had scored they would have gone ahead and the momentum would have been firmly in their favour.
Clearly the opening try of the second-half was going to be crucial and it was Bulls who got it, Vainikolo powering in from acting-half after Jamie Langley had almost forced his way over.
Paul Deacon converted and the only other score of the second-half was Iestyn Harris' late drop goal.
After Walker's disallowed effort Leeds rarely looked like getting over the Bulls line, though they were unfortunate when Gareth Ellis broke clear, he sent Rob Burrow away and his pass gave Calderwood a run.
The winger was hauled down by Withers, then Andrew Dunemann was adjudged to have knocked-on at dummy-half – though Leeds should have had a penalty as Withers shoved Calderwood over as he played the ball.
That was one of a series of 50-50 decisions which went against Rhinos, but Bulls earned their luck.
There was very little in it, but Bradford always had the upper hand. Rhinos gave their all, but it wasn't their night.
They made too many mistakes, their attack wasn't sharp and they failed to put Bulls' defence under enough sustained pressure.
Rhinos' pack didn't go forward enough and a team who have scored a record number of touchdowns and points this year were restricted to just a handful of try-scoring opportunities.
Both teams were out on their feet at the end, but Bulls survived the pace better – one defensive set 10 minutes from time, when Leeds threw everything at them in what was clearly an all or nothing effort, giving them the belief that they could hang on.
Bradford centre Leon Pryce was a deserved man of the match, worrying Rhinos with his strong running and scoring a fine opening try.
Iestyn Harris had a big game against his former club at stand-off, Langley made an impact off the bench, Hape's defence was superb and Brad Meyers was very strong in the second-row.
Scrum-half Paul Deacon caused problems, particularly early on and the on-loan Adrian Morley was strong after the break.
Richard Mathers was best for Leeds. He had a fine match at full-back, regularly breaking the line and tidying up some dangerous moments from Deacon kicks – one re-start which hit a crossbar and a grubber which rebounded off a post.
Try-scorer Danny McGuire tackled his heart out and was Leeds' biggest attacking threat, though he never quite managed to break free.
Andrew Dunemann was tireless at hooker and then in the back-row, though he gave away a couple of costly penalties while Ellis made that second-half break and tackled strongly.
It was a sad farewell for Dunemann, Calderwood, Marcus Bai, Chris McKenna and Barrie McDermott, who were all playing their final game for the club.
McDermott – who got a tremendous ovation from the Leeds fans – gave it everything in his limited game time. though one of his first contributions was a high shot on his friend and former team-mate Morley, which gave Deacon the chance to open the scoring with a penalty goal.
Rhinos had survived a traumatic opening, which saw them under heavy pressure after Willie Poching dropped Deacon's kick-off.
Bulls immediately forced a repeat set when Calderwood batted Deacon's kick dead, but they survived after Meyers was held up over the line.
Rob Burrow and McGuire went close before Deacon's opening penalty, but Meyers lost possession from the re-start and in the next set Ryan Bailey was tackled just short and Dunemann kicked through from acting-half for McGuire to dive over for the first try.
Bailey suffered a leg injury shortly afterwards and didn't figure in the second-half, which greatly reduced Rhinos' options in the pack.
Deacon's penalty goal levelled matters after Dunemann stole the ball from Ian Henderson and then, after an Ali Lauitiiti knock on, Deacon supplied Pryce and he dummied past Walker and strode through Kevin Sinfield's attempted tackle to edge Bulls ahead.
Sinfield cut the gap to two points with a goal after Morley was penalised for leading with an elbow from the re-start, but that completed Rhinos' scoring with 47 minutes of the game left.
This was Rhinos' fifth defeat in seven finals in the summer era and they became the first team to lose Challenge Cup and Super League deciders in the same season.
Bulls – who finished third in the regular season, seven points behind Leeds – became the first team to win the title from outside the top two.
Goal: Sinfield 1/1
Richard Mathers: Excellent effort 9
Mark Calderwood: Tried hard 7
Chev Walker: So near 7
Chris McKenna: Defended well 7
Marcus Bai: Limited involvement 6
Danny McGuire: Constant threat 8
Rob Burrow: Some nice darts 7
Ryan Bailey: Injury victim 6
Andrew Dunemann: Tireless 7
Danny Ward: Ran strongly 7
Gareth Ellis: Great defence 8
Willie Poching: On and off 6
Kevin Sinfield: Not his day 6
Matt Diskin: Made an impact 7
Jamie Jones-Buchanan: High work-rate 7
Barrie McDermott: No fairy tale 7
Ali Lauitiiti: Nothing came off 5
Tries: Pryce, Vainikolo
Goals: Deacon 3/5
Drop goal: Harris
Team: Michael Withers, Leon Pryce, Ben Harris, Shontayne Hape, Lesley Vainikolo, Iestyn Harris, Paul Deacon, Stuart Fielden, Ian Henderson, Jamie Peacock, Paul Johnson, Brad Meyers, Lee Radford. Subs (all used) Robbie Paul, Adrian Morley, Joe Vagana, Jamie Langley.
Referee: Ashley Klein (Keighley)
Video referee: David Campbell
Attendance: 65,537 (capacity)
Penalties: Rhinos 7, Bulls 6 (first-half 3-4)
Goal-line drop-outs: Rhinos 3, Bulls 2
On report: None
Scoring sequence: 0-2 Deacon penalty; 4-2 McGuire try; 4-4 Deacon penalty; 4-8 Pryce try; 6-8 Sinfield pen. Second-half 6-14 Vainikolo try, Deacon conversion; 6-15 I Harris drop goal.