Far more than just overcoming their opponents in a series of one-on-one battles, Leeds have done so when everyone has doubted them, when they have found themselves in seemingly impossible situations and when they have lacked key personnel at the most pivotal moments. Perhaps most importantly when looking at the elemental interpretation of ‘sport’, they have done it with good grace and respect and with a pure and completely natural self-motivation.
Saturday’s 22-20 Super League Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors capped a season in which Leeds have won all three domestic honours for the first time in their history, and for only the third time ever. It also brought a fairy-tale end to the careers of three of their most revered characters; an ending which shimmers with Hollywood glamour rather than the reluctant blood, sweat and grass stains it was built upon. It seemed too good to be true, but the reality that Leeds Rhinos deal in has touched on this level of greatness so many times that it never seemed far-fetched, and even in the last seconds of the final Super 8s game at Huddersfield three weeks ago when Leeds looked dead and buried, you somehow felt this outcome was touchable, believable and almost routine…..and here we are.
That Leeds Rhinos are now waving goodbye to three true legends in Kylie Leuluai, Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield is the picture book ending that everybody remembers and which provides all the headlines and soundbites. Buried beneath that, Saturday’s win was littered with sub-plots and essential character-building that may not grab the attention on the billboards, but wholly contributed to bulk the story out with foundation and imperative, compelling detail.
There was the brief cameo of 21-year-old Back Rower Josh Walters, who has struggled to establish himself, having converted from rugby union as recently as 2013, but came on as a late substitute, scored the crucial try to bring Leeds back level, then immediately hobbled off with an injury sustained in that very act. There was Brett Delaney playing through the pain barrier, having declared himself fit at the eleventh hour after a dead leg he received in the Semi-Final win over St Helens. There was Leuluai himself, revealing after the game that he almost retired a month ago and has been playing with an irregular heartbeat in recent weeks which restricts the oxygen flow in his blood. Finally, there was the small matter of Kevin Sinfield kicking the winning points, the 3953rd and last of his Leeds Rhinos career and a minor statistical aside to go along with the saccharine emotion of his departure.
One of Leeds’s chief motivations over the years has been their desire to prove people wrong. With a seemingly insatiable urge to write them off, the media once again awoke with egg on their faces on Sunday morning. Leeds have triumphed in seven grand finals now when, prior to any one of them, few ‘experts’ in the game have made them favourites to win. Whether this was through injuries, fatigue or finishing the regular season as an effective also-ran, Leeds have been underestimated countless times, and yet, incredibly, people still did it in the run up to Saturday; this time, perhaps, because the story was just too corny and predictable.
Even during Saturday’s game when Leeds had been pegged back by Wigan’s two tries shortly after half-time, watching the re-run back having returned from the game, I noted Sky Sports’ commentators were writing their obituaries, and Leeds’s challenge was dismissed amid the predicted signs of battle-weariness; but within the Leeds camp is an intrinsic belief that no hardship is unconquerable and without question Leeds excel in doing things the hard way, with millimetres or seconds to spare and with the menacing air of the wounded animal deep in their DNA.
Saturday’s triumph was a prime example of this, as had been the previous heart-stopping wins against Huddersfield Giants and St Helens. Each team held the lead on two occasions during the 73,512-sell-out Old Trafford finale, but Leeds only relinquished it once, and played out the final 17 minutes with a slender two point advantage, but with the calculated aura of a team wily enough to see it through without major trauma.
An early Joe Burgess try for Wigan appeared to signal a rough day for the Rhinos, and people spoke briefly of the leftover physical scars from last weekend’s gruelling Semi-Final proving one step too far; but Leeds responded almost immediately through the sixth-sense synergy of Sinfield and man-of-the-match Danny McGuire. Leeds then raced into a 16-6 half-time lead through further tries from McGuire and the ever-alert Australian Joel Moon. However, Wigan fought back and showed the battling qualities that had seen them finish level on points with the Rhinos at the end of the Super League season, and quick-fire tries from Dom Manfredi and the brilliant Matty Bowen – who was also retiring after this game and was desperately unlucky not to get the fantasy ending he craved – saw Wigan 16-18 ahead with a full 27 minutes left to play. Bowen then extended Wigan’s lead to four points with a penalty, but they enjoyed only ninety seconds of that relative comfort, before Walters grabbed a pass from Jimmy Keinhorst and leapt over the whitewash to land the crucial try for Leeds. The scores were briefly level before Sinfield was left centre stage and solitary on the field, to kick Leeds to their destiny.
A typically tight final was played out with masterful game management by Leeds, as their big match maturity ensured no more points were scored, and the final hooter brought consummation, the ultimate validation and smiles right up to heaven and back.
If there was any doubt that this Leeds Rhinos team were already the club’s best ever, then this was unilaterally dispelled by Saturday’s heroic capture of the domestic clean sweep. While it provided the perfect book-end to what many people feel is the concluding ‘golden era’ signalled by the departures of Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai, of course it consequently opens the question many Rhinos fans have been avoiding having to ask. But the seventh title and domestic treble means the true greatness of the ‘Sinfield era’ Leeds side is now unquestionable, if it wasn’t already.
In some respects expectations now change, and life may become more forgiving through a brief period of grace. The revised task is to maintain the dynasty that has been created through a decade of soul-searching, visionary thinking and gratifying toil. Talk already is of ‘evolution not revolution’ with the building blocks clearly already in place, and the high standards set. Evidently success breeds success, and in the darker moments that each season inevitably brings, it is impossible to quantify the motivation that special nights like Saturday offer. If you have experienced it once, Leeds Rhinos have found a way to turn that into a propelling force.
Throughout the Leeds squad there is evidence of those high standards; in the way Carl Ablett has developed from a bit-part player into the 2015 season’s only ever-present; in how Danny McGuire has overcome a series of grave injuries to evolve his game and become an inspirational authority all over the field; in how Brett Delaney, Adam Cuthbertson, Joel Moon and Mitch Garbutt have become the most influential overseas signings in many years and how the academy has presented a succession of youngsters ready to pick up the baton in Stevie Ward, Ash Handley, Jimmy Keinhorst and Liam Sutcliffe, among others.
What will be difficult to judge is how these standards are maintained in the absence of such monumental characters as Leuluai, Peacock and Sinfield. Can you compensate for their mental strength, fortitude and resolve? Who knows what force of will can be derived simply from glancing across in the heat of battle, when heads are dropping and hearts are beating fast, and catching their eye with an instantaneous look that speaks a thousand words and confirms they’ve got your back? It is impossible to know until they are gone, and that inexorable time is now.
A natural leader will come forth and only those amongst it will be able to make that call. Replacing unique characters can be done; they just tell their own story in a different way and slowly replace the seemingly irreplaceable. But creating a ‘team’ is different. Everybody knew that this day would come, and what a way to get there? Leeds Rhinos; immortal and incomparable, fearless and peerless. We may never see the likes of this team again, but the lights don’t go out. So with a mixture of pride, affirmation and trepidation, the never-ending story continues.