Danny’s the boy
Danny McGuire signs off with two tries as Rhinos crush Tigers’ hopes of their first Super League triumph
There is to be no new name on the Super League Grand Final trophy after all. Castleford Tigers arrived here as the runaway winners of the Super League, convinced they could become but the fifth team to win the Grand Final in its 20th year. Instead, they were steamrollered by experience as Leeds galloped to an eighth win in the biggest match in the game. And this after finishing bottom at the end of the 2016 season.
It was no spectacle, no grand demonstration of skills, a triumph of attrition rather than flamboyance. But for Danny McGuire, playing in his ninth Grand Final on what was his last appearance for the club before he heads to Hull KR, it was the most magnificent of personal send-offs. A man-of-thematch award sealed with a pair of sniper’s tries and a couple of dropped goals: as goodbyes go, not even Sir Alex Ferbegan guson’s swansong in this stadium four years ago could match this for an adieu.
“What a night,” was McGuire’s reaction. “We’ve come from a dark place last year, the commitment and the effort has been second to none and I can’t thank the boys enough. It’s an unbelievable way to go out. I’ve had a great journey and I’ll enjoy these next few days.”
McGuire’s grin illuminated a grim squall of an evening in Manchester. But, then, however wretched, the weather was never going to dampen the enthusiasm of the 72,000 who had journeyed over the Pennines. More than 30,000 came from Castleford, which is roughly three-quarters of the town’s entire population; with the streets emptied, the local burglars must have had the run of the place.
Despite the risk to their property, the Tigers fans had arrived in good heart. Their team had finished 10 points ahead of the rest at the end of the regular season, delivering a staggering points difference of plus-391. To put that into statistical perspective, Leeds, in second place, registered plus76. What’s more, those points were accumulated with a zestful swagger. Not least in the 66-10 victory over the Rhinos in March.
But while Castleford might have been fizzing with form, Leeds possess something their opponents lack: Grand Final experience. Rob Burrow, starting his last game before retirement on the Rhinos bench, was embroiled in his ninth Grand Final for the club, which is two more appearances at the game’s top table than the entire Castleford squad had between them.
And the Tigers were obliged to enter new territory without their stand-out player. Zak Hardaker, the 25-year-old England international who had scored 13 tries in 30 games, was left out by coach Daryl Powell for an unspecified breach of club rules.
Whether it was the lack of their star performer or simply the scale of the occasion, from the start, in their debut in the limelight, Castleford looked nervy. The ball slipped from hand in conditions, knock-ons and drops became contagious. And Leeds, grizzled, determined, uncompromising, quickly took control.
After only seven minutes, a superb crossfield kick from McGuire was aimed at Tom Briscoe. The three-quarter leapt above two Castleford defenders to catch the ball and funnel it over the line, the legitimacy of his effort confirmed by the video referee. Kallum Watkins cleanly converted.
Not even their most fervent supporter could describe it as an exhibition of attacking rugby, but Leeds to look what they are: the seasoned regulars, experienced in managing conditions and nerves. Never mind that they had almost been relegated last season, this is a club with unfathomable reserves of nous. Stevie Ward began to frighten with his running, a steady barrage of kicks rained down on the Castleford backline.
And before anyone from Castleford had the chance to appreciate that, yes, the atmosphere at a Grand Final is as noisy as any sporting event in the calendar, Watkins slid in on yet another deft through-kick by McGuire to claim a try. However, repeated analysis by the video referee suggested he had not grounded the ball properly.
But even with that let-off the Tigers were struggling to find the flourish that had served them so well this season. Unable to find their rhythm, they were ceding territory and possession; the fusillade kept coming, the balls kept rain- ing down behind the orange backline, the Tigers were blocked.
Even when they had the opportunity to break out, things did not go right. When Briscoe gifted them a penalty, the ball was fed out to Greg Eden, galloping along the flank. But a magnificent last-ditch tackle from McGuire slapped the ball from his hands just as he appeared to be launching for the line. Jy Hitchcox was then denied by another brilliant piece of Leeds recovery. McGuire’s dropped goal with the last kick of the half added to the sense that this was not Castleford’s night.
But the Tigers fans, in their face paint and stripy bobble hats, kept bellowing out their optimism. They knew their team had come back before – after all, they were 16-0 down to Catalan earlier in the season and won 32-24. The trouble was, this was not Catalan they were playing. It was Leeds: gnarled, canny, pragmatic. And presented with such uncompromising opponents, too often, Castleford – saving their worst performance of the season for last – gave the ball away unnecessarily; overambitious kicks ended up in white-shirted hands, possession slithered away. And Leeds kept pressing, threatening, smothering, their forwards grinding down Castleford.
There was inevitable further reward for their dominance when McGuire gleefully scooped up a loose ball after Eden had dropped Joel Moon’s up and under, diving over the line and sliding into the advertising hoardings. Briscoe added further insult to injury by gambolling over in the corner for his second try after Moon had opened up the opportunity with a delicious side-step.
McGuire then took advantage of yet another Cas handling error to slap down his second try, before delightedly chipping over his second dropped goal. Alex Foster’s late consolation was not enough to stem the rush for the exits among the few Castleford fans who remained in the stadium.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would get to Old Trafford, never mind win it, and now look at us,” said the Leeds coach Brian McDermott. “It’s the best win ever, this one.”
It may not have been pretty, but he had a point. The truth was that Leeds exuded the kind of dominance Castleford had made their own this season. In the one that mattered, the Rhinos had stolen the Tigers’ thunder.
‘We’ve come from a dark place last year. It’s an unbelievable way to go out. I’ve had a great journey’
That’s all from us: Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow hold the trophy after playing their final games for Leeds. Captain McGuire was named man of the match after scoring two second-half tries in yesterday’s final
Signing off in style: Danny McGuire marked his last appearance for Leeds Rhinos, in his ninth Grand Final. before moving to Hull KR, with two tries to help seal his eighth winner’s medal at Old Trafford yesterday