Of course the Wigan Warriors will have a thing or two to say about that, and there will be no room for sentiment come 6.00pm on Saturday evening at a sell-out Old Trafford, but given the gargantuan effort Leeds have put in to turn their fading season around, few would bet against them seeing it through.
Last Friday’s 20-13 Semi-Final victory over St Helens was indeed a brutal contest, and the theme most visible across the celebratory Rhinos post-match was a look of sheer exhaustion. Already missing long term absentees Liam Sutcliffe, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Paul Aiton, Leeds went into the game without Stevie Ward and Mitch Achurch. 80 bruising minutes later, Jamie Peacock in particular wore the look of an empty shell and a man overcome by one battle too many, and Leeds were also carrying knocks to ever-present Carl Ablett, Kallum Watkins and Brett Delaney, although all are expected to be fit for Saturday. Nevertheless, Coach Brian McDermott will think nothing of giving bench time to the likes of Brad Singleton, Jordan Lilley and Jimmy Keinhorst at Old Trafford and extending the Rhinos’ policy of blooding youngsters with a sniff of the big stage.
What can’t be seen or measured is the prodigious effort that the Rhinos put in to see off a resolute St Helens team, who led until the final twelve minutes. In contrast, Wigan sailed through their Semi-Final 24 hours earlier at home to the Huddersfield Giants. But the versatile Carl Ablett this week took the view that Leeds were well-prepared for the big Old Trafford contest, having already conquered in a high-intensity game at Headingley Carnegie last Friday; and hence were more ”battle-hardened” and tuned-in than the Cherry and Whites.
It is fair to say that this Leeds side are the veterans of many a battle of supreme strength and magnitude compared with a relatively young Wigan side, but it is impossible to balance the benefit of mental worldliness against physical fatigue. Certainly the early part of this week will have seen the Rhinos physically recover and do little more taxing than focus on the game ahead, but sooner or later they will have to test their bodies and ensure the physical momentum of that high-intensity semi-final is not lost. McDermott achieving that conditioning balance could be the key to winning or losing the big occasion, and nobody doubts that Jamie Peacock will haul his weary body out of the ice bath for one final, mammoth effort.
In terms of form, you would have to say that Wigan have a slight edge. They have lost only once since their Super 8s defeat by Leeds back in August, and that was a narrow 18-14 reverse at St Helens. Over the Super League season, there was barely anything between the two finalists, with each team winning two and losing two of their four contests, which included the two regular season games, a Super 8s contest at Headingley and the Magic Weekend encounter at St James’ Park. Leeds will take an advantage from winning the most recent game between the two – 25-18 at Headingley – but in reality the two teams ended with identical league records over 30 games, with Leeds edging it on points difference.
A factor which many people are claiming gives Wigan an advantage is the small matter of Leeds never having beaten Wigan in a major final. Historically, this is a significant fact with the successive 1994 and 1995 Wembley victories for Wigan in the Challenge Cup Final bringing back some particularly painful memories. The two teams also contested the very first Old Trafford Grand Final in 1998, when the Warriors won a tight battle 10-4. You sense, however, that this will mean little to an outfit as experienced as the Rhinos, who have defied the odds on countless occasions before. This generation of players has only lost once in a major final to Wigan – 2011’s 28-18 defeat in the Challenge Cup Final – and have otherwise not faced them in a deciding contest. Therefore, this Leeds’s record in big games versus Wigan is technically no more significant than their record against Hull FC, who they have also faced only once in a final in recent years and lost. If Leeds are to give that Wigan hoodoo any credence at all, you suspect that is how they would look at it.
Certainly Leeds go into the Grand Final carrying a certain amount of goodwill within the game, with the occasion proving to be a fitting finale for the Herculean careers of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai. As Leeds attempt to land the treble on Saturday and a clean sweep of the game’s major trophies, this week has also seen the Rhinos pick up a trio of accolades at the Man of Steel awards.
24-year-old Zak Hardaker won the overall Man of Steel award, three years after winning the Young Player award in 2012. Leeds Rhinos also won Club of the Year, and Brian McDermott won Coach of the Year.
The ultimate individual prize has certainly capped a fine Super League season for Hardaker, who started it with more disciplinary issues, but has ended it being recognised by his peers for an all-action display at both ends of the pitch. Hardaker’s most talked-about moment was the dazzling footwork that brought about a superb solo try in the 49-10 destruction of Warrington Wolves in August. Hardaker scored two tries that night and was unlucky not to get a hat-trick in a man-of-the-match performance, but the ex-Featherstone full back actually takes most pride in his defensive work, which has been notable in recent games, particularly with the late try-saving touch in the in-goal area versus Huddersfield Giants two weeks ago.
You feel the consistently switched-on Hardaker could be the big game player with a huge influence on how the Grand Final goes, but in truth the Leeds team is littered with individuals who have been there and done it, and could well help to swing it again. In Friday’s Semi-Final, for example, Ryan Hall scored the decisive try for the second game running, and the second half 40-20 kick to relieve the pressure in an instant and crucially switch the momentum in Leeds’s favour, was vintage Kevin Sinfield.
In a season that has seen Sinfield announce his decision to switch codes to Rugby Union with Yorkshire Carnegie, it could have been a meek and low-key parting for the skipper, with Liam Sutcliffe being preferred in the half back position and a very visible ‘changing of the guard’ being undertaken. It is typical Sinfield to take centre stage with no ceremony and to kick Leeds to the Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield so far, notwithstanding the game management that has seen Leeds come back from losing positions in epic circumstances.
An outsider may consider the achievements so far this season are testament enough to the greatness of Sinfield and his retiring colleagues Peacock and Leuluai, but an insatiable desire to succeed has been their driving force for many a year. Winning every trophy on offer and hence crowning the most successful Leeds Rhinos season ever is as satisfying as it gets; the ultimate epilogue. It may seem a story that is verging on ‘too good to be true’, were it featuring anyone else. But this fable is within touching distance and you know these special people are the masters of turning dreams into reality.