Peter Smith’s Inside RL: Why Leeds Rhinos can win Super League Grand Final from fifth - again
THEY COULDN’T do it again, could they?
Despite having twice won the Grand Final from fifth place in the table, Leeds Rhinos are very much the underdogs going into the latest play-off series.
Considering all the adversity they have faced this season, just being there at the business end is an achievement but, now the pressure is off, there is no reason why Rhinos can’t give it a good crack.
The top-six format is designed to produce a final between the two leading sides, as it did last year when second-placed St Helens defeated table-topping Wigan Warriors in the title decider.
Catalans Dragons - this year’s league leaders - and Saints both have a week off before a home semi-final and the most likely outcome is a meeting between those two teams at Old Trafford on October 9.
They have been the two best and most consistent teams throughout 2021 and it would be a fitting final, particularly after their epic Magic Weekend showdown earlier this month.
But, the best team don’t always come out on top.
In 2011 and 2012, Rhinos won away to the league leaders at the semi-final stage before going on to lift the trophy.
Catalans this year became the eighth different team to win a league leaders’ shield, but only four of those have gone on to be crowned champions.
Castleford Tigers were, by far, the best side in the 2017 regular season, but came to grief against Leeds in the biggest game.
Warrington didn’t reach the final in 2011 and lost to Wigan at Old Trafford four years later and Huddersfield Giants came up short in the play-offs eight years ago.
Catalans have lost successive games since securing top spot and it is notoriously difficult to simply switch back on when the big matches come around.
Unlike some previous formats, the current system offers no second chances for the top two teams if they lose their first play-off.
Catalans will be at home, which is a formidable advantage - particularly during the pandemic - but they aren’t unbeatable.
If Leeds can get past Wigan on Thursday, they are likely to travel to Perpignan the following week. They’ve lost twice to Catalans this season, but were ahead at half-time in both games and will feel, in a one-off encounter, that they can upset the odds.
After last week’s victory against Hull KR, Rhinos are taking some form with them into the post-season series and, crucially, while some other teams are losing players, they are starting to get a few back.
Wigan away is always tough, but there’s no reason why Rhinos can’t win there on Thursday, having pulled off a 14-0 success at DW Stadium a month ago.
That was their first win at Wigan since 2013.
Interestingly, that season Leeds were also 14-point victors - 20-6 - in a league game late in the campaign and returned a few weeks later in the play-offs, when they were beaten 22-12.
Wigan neither score nor concede many points so Rhinos can’t afford to be chasing the game but, if they play well, it’s a winnable tie.
Beyond that, it’s all about who can handle the big occasion. Saints have won the last two major finals so there’s no doubting their nerve, but it will be new territory for Catalans.
They have improved massively under coach Steve McNamara, since surviving the lottery of the million pound match in his first season there and were Challenge Cup winners in 2018, but have no experience of winning play-off semi-finals.
Being at home and favourites brings its own pressures and the tie won’t be a formality, whoever they play. It would be a challenge for the marketeers, but most neutrals will be hoping Catalans can go all the way and become only the fifth different team to win a Super League title - and the first new winners since Leeds won it in 2004.
With Toulouse Olympique having topped the Betfred Championship and on course for promotion to the top flight, these are heady days for the south of France, which is one of rugby league’s most loyal strongholds.