Final emotions tell the story of Leeds' grand victory
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.
From 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.
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.