ON A NIGHT when an entire country looked to Manchester for their rugby entertainment, it is the star of Rugby League which shone brightest, a sell-out crowd of 73,512 treated to the finest Grand Final in recent memory. A pulsating game built on defence, it was a great advert for the often unfairly and under-appreciated code.
A Treble of League Leaders Shield, Challenge Cup and Super League Grand Final victories ensure Leeds Rhinos have swept up all trophies on offer in English Rugby League. Here at Old Trafford they clinched their place in the annals of history.
The possible narratives were thread throughout this occasion. Would it be Wigan Warriors avenging their defeat to St. Helens the year before, or would it be the glorious end to three of the finest careers these shores have ever seen?
Proceedings started like a house on fire, Liam Farrell taking advantage of a Sinfield lapse in the defensive line, as he tried to cut out a scything Wigan attack, to break clean through inside four minutes down the left-hand side, before releasing Joe Burgess to score. Even newly-crowned Man of Steel Leeds fullback Zak Hardaker could not stop Wigan. Matty Bowen added the extras. 6-0
Champions answer quickly. Matty Smith of Wigan dropped the kick-off and Leeds took ruthless advantage of the resulting field position, the next set ending with Kevin Sinfield playing in Danny McGuire with a grubber kick to touch down in front of the Wigan populated East Stand. Sinfield + McGuire = Leeds Try. An oh so familiar calculation. Sinfield made no mistake with the extras. 6-6.
Leeds were camped near their own Stretford End try line for much of the opening 40. In the same vein as the entire season, Leeds repelled their opposition. In the 28th minute as McGuire was tackled inside the 20 metre line the ball was adjudged to have gone backwards. Hardaker stayed alive to the possibilities to feed Joel Moon to go over. The decision was referred upstairs, but on-field referee Ben Thaler’s belief that it was a try was well founded. Sinfield was off the mark. 10-6 Leeds.
Then came the try of the night. On the 4th play of six in the 35th minute Danny McGuire fed a long ball out to right winger Tom Briscoe, who intelligently waited for Kallum Watkins arriving on the outside arc. Watkins burned past Joe Burgess and John Bateman before giving McGuire his second score of the night. Sinfield adjusted from his earlier miss. 16-6 Leeds. Half Time.
The next score was pivotal. Wigan turned the game completely on its head with two quick scores inside the opening ten minutes of the second stanza. Super League Young Player of the Year George Williams feeding a high cross field kick to Dom Manfredi who stripped the ball from Leeds’ Ryan Hall to cross. Bowen was faultless with boot all night. 16-12 with 46 minutes on the clock. Wigan were not finished there.
The fairy tale looked to be Wigan’s after 49 minutes. Matty Bowen in his final game for Wigan came back on the angle from a Matty Smith pass, dancing his way through all of Leeds defence to dot down under the posts and seemingly dash Leeds’ Treble Dream. Bowen was underserving of his runners-up medal, Wigan’s stand-out player and unjustly leaving the club in lieu of Sam Tomkins’ homecoming. 18-16 Wigan. The lead was stretched to 20-16 with twenty minutes left to play, Bowen punishing Watkins’ lethargic attempt to get back on side with a penalty.
Cue McGuire again. Four minutes after going four points behind, on the last play, McGuire lifts a high ball to Ryan Hall who taps the ball back to Joel Moon, who feeds Jimmy Keinhorst who passes on to 20-year old Josh Walters to tie the game once more. Sinfield added the extras and Leeds were back in front 22-20. The Treble loomed large.
Sinfield and Jamie Peacock were stood side by side as the final hooter sounded. They hugged to provide the image of the night. Two of England and Great Britain’s most loyal servants with 16 Super League Winners’ Rings between them. The epitome of the term ‘Legend’. This was a night of nights. Goodbye Sir Kev, JP and Kylie Leuluai. Thanks for the memories.
Leeds Rhinos 22
TRIES: McGuire (2), Moon, Walters
GOALS: Sinfield (3)
Wigan Warriors 20
TRIES: Burgess, Manfredi, Bowen
GOALS: Bowen (4)