Little did we know there was more to come, and in terms of sensational late tries to compare it with, Rhinos fans perhaps have to go back as far as the 2003 Challenge Cup Semi-Final at Huddersfield and Danny McGuire’s last second try, which along with Sinfield’s touchline conversion took the game into extra-time, where Leeds prevailed to reach the final.
In similar terms, Ryan Hall’s gleeful solo dash is also just part of a story the Rhinos are still writing. Most immediately, it delivered the League Leaders’ Shield, something Leeds have been desperate to land for the first time since 2009, not least because of the format criticism they have been innocent victims of, with their most recent Grand Final wins – in 2011 and 2012 – coming via fifth-placed Super League finishes. This time, if Leeds can complete the job there can be no arguments that they are the supreme team over the full length of the season, and the resulting triple trophy haul will be the most flawless of accomplishments.
That it was Hall who carried the ball home, after the final hooter had already sounded at the John Smith’s Stadium, was appropriate for many reasons. Most prominently, it sums up the Leeds Rhinos ethic that every player is on equal terms and no matter what has gone before in the 80 minutes, it is a collective spirit that will see the job through. Hall had endured an error-riddled evening, in truth not for the first time recently, with nerves under the high ball leading to costly handling errors, and even a simple pass to full back colleague Zak Hardaker near his own line shortly after half-time led to a try that was thankfully ruled out by the video referee, after it fell woefully short and was picked up but not grounded properly by Huddersfield’s Luke Robinson.
Hall’s try was his redemption, and as well as confirming him as the big game player we all know he is, it provided one of the greatest moments of pure sporting theatre in the Rhinos’ recent history. However, the moment also owed much to Tom Briscoe’s timely 74th-minute converted try to haul the Rhinos back to 16-14, Sinfield’s nerveless but scuffed penalty to level the scores with 85 seconds remaining and, most directly, to Danny McGuire’s astute kick into space; which with the clock ticking down was the only likely way a try could have been scored from the field position the Rhinos were in.
In that unforgettable moment the Rhinos jumped from third to first in the Super League table, and in a comical aside provided Sky Sports with their worst-case scenario, as the helicopter they had prepared to deliver the League Leaders’ Shield was hurtling at pace and with confidence towards the DW Stadium, where Wigan had comfortably overcome the Castleford Tigers. In years to come, the Rhinos players and nearly 4,000 supporters may recall most fondly the surreal but precious twenty minutes they spent alone together in an otherwise deserted stadium waiting for the shield to land. When it did, it was another magic moment for the Rhinos’ scrapbook.
Away from the drama of Friday night, and while Kallum Watkins was a surprise omission from the shortlist for the end-of-season Man of Steel award, the 24-year-old centre was boosted by his inclusion in the Super League Dream Team this week. Four Rhinos players were included in total, with Zak Hardaker, Adam Cuthbertson and Jamie Peacock – included for the 11th and final time - joining Watkins in the 13-man team. The three-man shortlist for the Man of Steel award included Hardaker and Cuthbertson, and also St Helens’ Alex Walmsley.
The breathless Huddersfield win has now set up an epic Semi-Final contest with St Helens at Headingley Carnegie on Friday, but didn’t come without cost. While Kevin Sinfield was patched up and passed a late fitness test to face the Giants last week, it seems unlikely that 21-year old Stevie Ward will recover from the awkward knee injury he suffered on Friday, which saw him leave the stadium on crutches. Coach Brian McDermott has not ruled Ward out of a possible Grand Final appearance, but the suggestion is that the Semi-Final has come too soon and the promising back row youngster – who has enjoyed a fine season for the Rhinos after injury-hit campaigns in 2013 and 2014 – will be left out.
St Helens come to Headingley having won the most recent of four previous contests between the two clubs in the 2015 season. Leeds won the two regular season games comfortably – 16-41 at Langtree Park in April and 46-18 at Headingley in July – and also won the Challenge Cup Semi-Final 24-14 versus Kieron Cunningham’s men at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, also in July; but perhaps most significantly, the Saints triumphed in the Super 8s game at Headingley less than a month ago, taking advantage of the Rhinos’ post-Wembley euphoria and inflicting the first of three successive defeats.
McDermott will be hugely encouraged by the defensive effort of his team at Huddersfield, however, and in a bruising contest which, to be fair, saw both defences on top, it was satisfying for the Rhinos coach to see an end to the loose tackles and lack of organisation that allowed both Catalan Dragons and Castleford Tigers to create havoc in the Rhinos’ own half during recent defeats. In the high stakes contest at Headingley this coming Friday, the odds are on the Rhinos to maintain their big game concentration and see the job through with that precious home advantage.
Certainly that last second Ryan Hall try has changed the entire outlook of the club dramatically and replaced frowns and anxiety with smiles and determined focus. While a draw would have been a gradual continuation of the upwards curve from the Castleford defeat, particularly in the last-gasp circumstances, nothing provides a boost like an overdue win; and it is hard to see how an ending like Hall provided last Friday could set the team up any better with the ultimate prize in sight.