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Final emotions tell the story of Leeds' grand victory

Paul Fletcher | 00:54 UK time, Sunday, 5 October 2008

James Graham might be the Man of Steel but at the sound of the final hooter at the Grand Final at Old Trafford on Saturday he resembled something made of stone.

The prop was motionless, hands on hips in disbelief. His incredible stillness contrasted in the starkest possible way with the celebrations of the Leeds Rhinos players in his immediate vicinity and the thousands of supporters in the stands behind him. He was only dragged out of this most private contemplation of defeat by the arrival of departing Saints coach Daniel Anderson to shake his hand in consolation.

Half an hour or so later I was stood in the corridor outside the two dressing rooms; Saints in the one normally occupied by Manchester United, the Rhinos in the other.

Deflated St Helens players ponder their defeatFrom one could be heard the triumphant if slightly tuneless banging and singing peculiar to a group of large, muscular males. An occasional burst of "Webby is Superman" - normally a popular refrain from the Leeds supporters to New Zealand full-back Brent Webb who missed the final through injury - hinted at the strong team bond and collective spirit that had helped Leeds upset the form book and retain their title. I sneaked in and asked Keith Senior what the victory felt like. He replied that it was "pretty satisfying" and was castigated by his team-mates for his understatement. It was a room of laughing, joking, mickey-taking and merriment.

Nothing at all could be heard outside the St Helens dressing room; it was a silence that spoke volumes. Every now and again kit man Stan would emerge to carry another piece of training gear outside to the team coach. Sean Long, suited and booted after a shower, could be seen through the door sat on a bench, staring into the distance. Occasionally he exchanged a word or two with the player next to him but it had not been the sort of night to bring out the cheeky, playful side of this most charismatic and engaging scrum-half.

There was no doubt at all that for St Helens the Grand Final had not gone to plan.

I spoke to lots of people before the game as I soaked up the atmosphere of the domestic season's grand conclusion. Everyone tipped Saints to win, the most adventurous adding the caveat that they thought it would be a closer contest than most were predicting.

And when Graham barged over for the final's opening try there was a feeling in the crowd that I have experienced before, at the last two Challenge Cup finals. It was a sense of exasperation from the away supporters and the neutrals that said "here we go again". Because there is no doubt that this St Helens side, unbeaten in 23 games going into the final, are a brilliant rugby team. For the Grand Final to be a meaningful contest Leeds had to ensure that Saints did not build a healthy lead. The Yorkshire club had to keep their Lancastrian opponents in check and cling to their shirt tails for long enough to force their way into the contest.

But Leeds did that and more, while this slick and well oiled Saints machine seemed to lose their way on a wet and blustery night. The conditions suited Leeds and their adept kicking game more than their opponents, who favour an expansive style of play. Yet to simply point to the elements would be an over-simplification and a disservice to the Rhinos.

While St Helens were far below their best - how often do you see Paul Wellens kick the ball into touch from a restart? - Leeds played with a steely resolve. After every brilliant conversion Kevin Sinfield wore an impassive expression devoid of celebration that spoke of an unflinching desire to get the job done, Man of the Match Lee Smith was imperious under high every high ball sent his way, Jamie Jones-Buchanan was bloodied but unbowed and the Rhinos forward pack launched themselves into tackle after tackle in a way that hinted at a hunger to prove their doubters wrong. Jubilant Leeds celebrate the victory

Many thought that Leeds would not recover from the 38-10 mauling they received in their play-off match on 19 September but several Leeds players spoke afterwards of the brilliant job coach Brian McClennan did in lifting his team after that defeat. The Rhinos started the season in scintillating form but fell off and struggled to recapture their former consistency. However, the New Zealand coach must take great credit for ensuring his players delivered when it mattered most. Furthermore, Senior told me that the squad had talked this week about their motivation for winning the final. Sure, they wanted to defend their title, but they also wanted to ensure that departing players such as Nick Scruton and Australia-bound Gareth Ellis left on a high note. Perhaps in this regard Leeds were the most emotionally sharp of the two teams. As Danny McGuire, who scored two tries in the final, told me: "You graft through 27 rounds and it all comes down to one game. We have the knack of performing in that big game."

Saints coach Anderson had dealt with the barrage of questions about his final game by deflecting the issue, insisting that it was not about him. Anderson spoke a lot about honesty in the build-up to the final. Judging from the pictures broadcast from inside the Saints dressing room, the Australian then seemed to deliver a decent slice of honesty to his players at half-time on Saturday and Anderson said after the defeat that he did not think his team had been honest enough with themselves during the first-half of the final.

Saints have had a fantastic season, winning the Challenge Cup and the League Leaders Shield. Anderson goes home to Australia on Wednesday having won nine trophies since arriving at Knowsley Road in 2005. But if they are being honest, Saints must acknowledge that on the night the best team won the 2008 Grand Final. Saints made too many errors and lacked the fluency and attacking brilliance that characterised their season.

Graham said last week on becoming the fourth successive St Helens players to be named Man of Steel that he would readily exchange the trophy for a Grand Final winners' medal. For the 23-year-old prop the wait must go on for at least another year.

Leeds inspirational forward Jamie Peacock missed out on the Man of Steel honours but now ends the season as a Grand Final winner for the fifth time and with the satisfaction that he is a member of the first Rhinos team to defend their championship in the club's 118-year history.

It is the contrasting emotions of despair and ecstasy that every final produces but both must now move on. For if England are to return home victorious from the forthcoming World Cup in Australia these two pivotal players must come together and form a formidable pairing.


  • Comment number 1.

    Marching on together!

    We're gonna see you win
    Na, na, na, na, na, na, na
    We are so proud,
    We shout it out loud

    We love you LEEDS, LEEDS, LEEDS!

  • Comment number 2.

    Great piece Paul. The BBC gets a lot of stick for its coverage of RL, and there are still many improvements that can be made, but the quality of the online content of late has been truly excellent. There are now a good few journos at the Beeb who clearly love RL and their enthusiasm is brilliant to see.

    Let's hope it continues into the World Cup, which will be a tremendous event.

  • Comment number 3.

    Being a Wigan fan these days means we don't always see success as it used to come so freely. It also means by default that I wanted Leeds to win. Along with that, the performance Leeds gave at Headingley against Wigan proves in my view that the best team won the play-offs. Wigan were magnificent against Leeds and fell short by a large margin, Leeds were outstanding. Many people were of the belief that Leeds couldn't beat St Helens. I thought Leeds were highly underestimated in all the pundits' views. Games like that alone make a satellite dish worthwhile. St Helens were cocky, arrogant and frantic in their game last night and Leeds just kept coming back again and again to tackle and get at all of the men in red and white. Every time Saints tried to respond, Leeds got back on top and kept dominating the pitch and yardage. Deserved champions again, Leeds also broke records for themselves and their congratulates are very well earened.
    Hopefully next year Wigan can break into that top two if we find a replacement for Trent.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great article Fletch!

    More like you from the BBC!

  • Comment number 5.

    Being a Salford City Reds it was great to be at Old Trafford last night.

    On the night Leeds Rhinos were by far the best team.

    St Helens started off really well but it was the Rhinos defence that impressed me the most..

    I cant wait now for next season when Salford City Reds return to the Engage Super League how we will cope with likes of Leeds and St Helens well thats another story.


  • Comment number 6.

    I never had a doubt that Leeds stood a chance last night. Saints are second best in every respect. Yes they're an awesome team, but I don't like it when people don't acknowledge that when the Rhinos bring their A game and play to their best, they're simply unstoppable, not even Saints- who I believe threw everything they had at Leeds can beat them.
    Why on earth the defending CHAMPIONS(ie. best team in the League) were written off and seen as "underdogs" I will not know.
    In my opinion Leeds suprised nobody last night.
    Didn't the same thing happen last season too? Everybody favoured Saints, then Leeds ran rings round them. Strange how nobody learns their lesson.
    I can see the same thing happening next season, Leeds Saints Grand Final and despite Leeds been back to back champions and probably still World Club Champions, everyone will probably favour Saints. How daft.
    It's all very silly and annoying! A bit like this post really, but I'm hungover after quite a night out in Leeds to celebrate. Because who won? Oh yes, LEEDS!

  • Comment number 7.

    One thing that can be said is, and i quote.

    "You graft through 27 rounds and it all comes down to one game. We have the knack of performing in that big game."

    Danny Maguire, my old friend from sociology class, his words after what can only be described as probably one of the greatest wins by a RL team in the grand final.
    Even maybe I had doubts after the way saints had, pretty comprehensively taken us apart in the 1st eliminator but it sure is now true... The rugby team is where the football team should be. TOP!!!!!! And still the best team in the world.
    I do miss headingley alot and will be making the long journey home to come back and watch the beloved rhinos in all there glory, as this win for me is the continuation of what Tony Smith started and it hopefully signals the start of a dominance the club has long deserved, fans 'n' all.
    As always... Que sera, sera.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great piece Paul, however you asked when has Paul Wellens ever kicked out on the full before ?
    Well he kicked out on the full immediately after half time in the crucial Tri Nations game against Australia in Brisbane and the Aussies scored in the next set of six.
    My point is, Wellens is a myth, people think he is great but he never does anythng worthy of note.

  • Comment number 9.

    I am a Leeds RL living in Qld, Australia and, despite the misgivings about the relative juncture in the respective seasons, I thoroughly enjoyed Leeds's win in the last World Club Challenge. Indeed, I have cheered every British side in that competition. I am looking forward to the Leeds versus Manly installment. Manly were superb at the weekend and it should be an absorbing contest. I'll be travelling and cheering England at every game in the forthcoming WC. They can do well if they are on song with the right combinations. Well done, Leeds and good luck England.

  • Comment number 10.

    I would like to thank Paul Fletcher for truly capturing the contrasting emotions of the night.

    Like most Saints fans, obviously I am gutted that we lost. This is not because I thought we had a God given right to win or that I haven't experienced losing before, it is because we didn't do ourselves justice. All credit to Leeds for that. They played better on the night, coped with the conditions much better and made the right decisions when it mattered.

    However, the fact that we lost does not suddenly make us a bad team or players like Wello bad players. In a one off game any good team can lose as shown by Leeds only a fortnight ago. I would have thought that this is good for the game rather than deserving of a good deal of unwarranted bile for Saints. The team did not play in an 'arrogant' manner, they just didn't play well enough.

    Well done Leeds, I look forward to the competition next year.

  • Comment number 11.

    When Hull was at Wembley we saw some “Hull for the day” T shirts on Rhino fans. Well I wont go that far but I was Leeds for a couple of hours at least. Still smiling that the "best team and still under the salary cap" went down again. Reminded me of the cup semi final in 05 when Danny Brough and Judas Cookie kicked them to death. Yorkshire Proud!!

  • Comment number 12.

    What a wonderful piece. I thought Saints reaction after the game - inferring that the only reason the Rhinos won was because of them failing to perform - smacked of a group of players in denial. Leeds were the better team on the night, putting in a tackling display which was the best I've seen this season. Congratulations to Saints, they're still a great side who play a style of rugby I'm not sure their rather fickle supporters deserve, but credit please where it's due.



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