RHINOS ARE CHAMPIONS
Leeds held their nerve against defending champions Bradford to lift the championship for the first time for 32 years in one of the less memorable Grand Finals.
Leeds held their nerve against defending champions Bradford to lift the championship for the first time for 32 years in one of the less memorable Grand Finals. The Rhinos were good value for their first ever Super League title even if they made unnecessarily hard work of it in front of a capacity 65,537 crowd at Old Trafford. The Super League showpiece contained too many errors to count as a classic, but it was tense and was only decided six minutes from the end when Danny McGuire went in for his 39th try of the season. Even Bradford captain Robbie Paul admitted the game was going to be just too close to call, and it took a moment of magic from the mercurial McGuire to finally see off the brave Bulls who have suffered three Grand Final defeats. McGuire, pipped by Bradford’s Lesley Vainikolo for the Super League try-scoring record, took a return pass from centre Keith Senior to scoot over for the most important touchdown of his fledgling career. The match marked a fitting finale for veteran Australian forward Dave Furner, who hung up his boots in style – and it was also a personal triumph for Leeds coach Tony Smith, succeeding at his first attempt where a host of his predecessors failed. Only three players in the Leeds team were born the last time Leeds held the championship crown in 1972 – but with a crop of highly-rated youngsters, they could be set for a period of sustained success. It was two tries each in the end, with Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield’s 100% goalkicking proving the difference on the scoreboard – although they were the superior team for the most part. It was a different story early on, though, as Vainikolo took just seven minutes to add to his amazing try tally. Clever handling by Paul, who worked a run-around with loose forward Lee Radford, and Shontayne Hape provided just enough space for the massive Tongan tormentor to race in for his 39th try of the season. Leeds’ solitary first-half try was a fantastic solo effort from hooker Matt Diskin, who jinked his way over from dummy-half on 15 minutes and went on to clinch the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match for an industrious display. Sinfield landed the conversion and also kicked a couple of penalties after the Bulls were twice punished for ball-stealing. Hape went over for Bradford. But video referee Dave Campbell disallowed the score for an earlier infringement by Radford, who clearly passed off the floor after the tackle had been completed. Hape was not to be denied and he claimed his side’s second try three minutes into the second half when half-backs Iestyn Harris and Paul Deacon worked the ball out to the left for him to cross wide out. Deacon was off target for the second time to leave his side trailing by two points – and that was as close as it got for the Bulls, who were forced to re-shuffle their back division at half-time following the loss of full-back Michael Withers. Leeds managed to dominate the first half on the back of a pinpoint kicking game from Sinfield and McGuire, who were not afraid to target danger man Vainikolo. The Leeds kickers succeeded in turning around the big man, and their chase was effective enough to keep him pinned back in his own 20-metre area. Nerves began to surface as the tension mounted, and both sides frittered away promising positions through handling errors. It was only in the last 10 minutes that the game came to life – with Deacon bursting clear, forcing Leeds to scramble back to halt Vainikolo. But both defences held firm until Paul came up with one mistake too many deep inside his own half, and that allowed Senior and McGuire to work the match-winning move.