Leeds Rhinos (8) 32
St Helens (2) 16
By Nick Norton
Wow. It might have seemed like too much to ask for Saturday’s Grand Final to repeat the thrills of the previous weekend’s play-off semi-finals, but somehow Leeds and St Helens managed to upstage their prior feats with one of the most scintillating finales that Super League has seen in its 16-year history.
Having respectively dumped joint favourites Warrington and Wigan out in such exciting style, both sides had the potential to produce something special, although this seemed unlikely after the typically porous Manchester skies let loose a deluge on the Old Trafford pitch before kick-off.
And so it was that much of the first half played out as a war of attrition, with defences on top and line breaks non-existent, save for a 50-metre run from Leeds’ Brett Delaney.
At the half-hour mark the score stood at just two points a piece, but cometh the hour, cometh the man, or more precisely, cometh Leeds’ 5ft 5in Rob Burrow, the super sub scrum half who coach Brian McDermott has used to run at tiring forwards with such devastating effect.
Despite a pitch that had seen players aquaplaning like Formula 1 cars, Burrow once again worked his own special brand of magic, taking the ball just inside the Saints’ half, ducking under a duo of forwards and setting off for the try line. He still had Paul Wellens to beat, but a deft step left the Saints full back trailing in his wake, with two desperate cover defenders powerless to stop Burrow crossing the line. A conversion from Kevin Sinfield, described by McDermott before the game as the best kicker in either rugby code, saw Leeds take an 8-2 lead into half-time.
For all Saints’ youthful vigour, the defensive solidity of Leeds’ more experienced players looked like it would set the stage for them to grind out a victory. No chance. After young winger Ben Jones-Bishop fumbled the ball out of play direct from the kick off, Leeds spent the next ten minutes camped on their own try line, as wave after wave of Saint Helens attacks pinned them in the in-goal area.
Saints looked to have scored when loose forward Andrew Dixon touched down a grubber-kick from stand off Jonny Lomax, but the third match official adjudged he had knocked the ball on with his fingertips in the act of grounding the ball.
Leeds continued to stand impenetrable, and another Saints thrust looked to have petered out when a Tommy Makinson kick-through was shepherded out by Leeds’ full back Brent Webb. However, Makinson slid in right behind Webb, and just before the ball went dead he reached over Webb’s shoulder and got a hand to the ball for a try that was this time confirmed by the TMO.
Jamie Foster converted to level the score, and Saints’ tails were up, as Leeds began to flounder under pressure. Five minutes later Saints were ahead, as a wonderful set piece play from a scrum saw Michael Shenton go over in the corner. Foster missed the conversion, but then added two further penalties – including one spectacular from the halfway line – to put Saints 16-8 up and give them one hand on their first league title in five years.
But their casualty list was beginning to take its toll. Wellens had already had to depart the field with an achilles problem, and when England international Shenton suffered a dislocated elbow, Saints’ forwards were robbed of some crucial lung-relieving interchanges.
It was to prove crucial. Leeds got their second wind and with 20 minutes to go Webb powered his way over. Sinfield converted to leave them just two points behind, a deficit that was soon squared with another penalty.
The momentum had shifted, and Saints looked shot as Burrow marked a man of the match performance with another break down the wing, a double-dummy that had Saints winger Francis Meli chasing shadows and a pass to Ryan Hall, who dived in to put Leeds in front.
It was no surprise when all 37 of the sports writers present voted for Burrow to collect the Harry Sunderland Trophy.
Karl Abblett, one of Leeds’ unsung heroes, then drove his way over and the game was up. With time against them an act of Saints’ desperation gave Zak Hardaker a simple sprint to the line, leaving the scoreboard unrepresentative of the battle royal that the previous 80 minutes had seen.
As fireworks enveloped the pitch in a thick layer of smoke, Leeds celebrated their fourth Super League title in five years with the Rhinos ‘haka’, but it was McDermott who had most reason to make a real song and dance. In the face of vociferous, sometimes vicious, criticism throughout the season he never lost his composure or his humility, and becoming only the third English coach to guide his side to a Grand Final victory was a fitting reposte to the horde of doubters.
While Saints may be left to rue their fifth consecutive Grand Final defeat, and their fourth at the hands of the Rhinos, they can take plenty of solace from the knowledge that they possess a side of young English stars in the making.
Today victory was just beyond them, but sooner rather than later they can look forward to brighter October days.