Imprinted on the wall of the Rhinos Locker room is a mission statement that perfectly sums up the mindset of the club.
‘Win or lose, in lean times or on the crest of success, the Headingley Club seldom deviate from their long-established policy of playing open and attractive rugby’.
It is fair to say that this has been a season of celebration for Leeds Rhinos, after clinching the treble for the first time in their history. Their first honour of 2015 came in the Challenge Cup Final, when they trounced Hull KR 50-0 at the end of August. Nearly a month later, things were much more nervy, as a last-minute Ryan Hall try saw them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a thrilling denouement, and deprive Wigan Warriors of glory in the Super 8s. After disposing of St. Helens in a nailbiting encounter in the semi-finals, before squaring up the Cherry and Whites in the Grand Final at Old Trafford, with a try from Josh Walters making the difference and capping an unforgettable season with a win in the biggest match of the season.
This match however saw the Rhinos in unfamiliar territory – they were going in as underdogs. New Zealand are the current Four Nations Champions, and like their Union counterparts, are a formidable proposition. To make the task even more daunting, Leeds would have to cope without several of their key players, including England internationals Zak Hardaker, Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall, who are currently on international duty, as they prepare to face the Kiwis in a three-match series starting next weekend. More disappointingly from the crowd’s perspective, both Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock were injured, and so were unable to take part in what was an emotional farewell. The match had been billed as a celebration of their achievements in the blue and amber, but at least veteran prop Kylie Leuluai, who was also bowing out, managed to enjoy his swansong on the pitch.
The club had clearly pulled out all the stops to make this a night to remember. Fans in the Carnegie Stand upper had cards which (if held up the right way) would spell out the word ‘treble’. The cards would then be flipped once the teams came out to reveal the numbers, ‘8’, ‘10’ and ‘13’, the numbers of the three departing legends. There was also a rendition of ‘Marching On Together’ performed by Richmond Hill School Choir and Opera singer Laurence Robinson belted out ‘Nessun Dorma’ as dozens of schoolchildren took part in a striking performance that once again spelt out the numbers of Leuluai, Sinfield and Peacock.
However, the highlight of the pre-match proceedings was a thunderous haka delivered by the New Zealand squad. There were camera flashes galore during this incredible Maori display, demonstrating that the traditional war cry has lost none of its appeal or mystical significance.
Onto the game, and it was an even start. As the number one side in the world, New Zealand’s physicality and agility was obvious from the outset. However, it was Leeds who went closest early on, with quick-ball finding its way to No.3 Jimmy Keinhorst, who was brought down around 15 metres from the line. Not to be outdone, the Kiwis capitalised on a knock-on, and Isaac Luke, the captain and hooker, almost reaching the line. It was a statement of intent from the Southern Hemisphere side, but it did nothing to dampen the Rhinos’ spirit, and it was they who had seemingly broken the deadlock, as Walters flicked the ball inside to Leuluai. The veteran was denied a fairytale start to his fairytale ending, as the try was chalked, although the crowd (and this report) was unsure why.
The Rhinos kept moving forward, and shortly after the disallowed score, both Robbie Ward and Ashton Golding found some joy (the latter showing dancing feet to slalom through before being cut down). Despite the entertaining start, there were still no points on the board from either side with 17 minutes gone, and Brian McDermott will have no doubt been pleased at his side’s ability to nullify such illustrious opponents, and their composure was rewarded. Some patient build-up eventually resulted in a grubber kick, which Joel Moon scampered onto and grounded, with 19-year-old Jordan Lilley steadying himself enough to slot home the conversion.
New Zealand wouldn’t be the best in the world however without coping well in the face of adversity, and sure enough they piled on the pressure from the kick-off. Eventually, their class told, as a series of brisky offloads found Jason Nightingale, who made no mistake (Luke converting for the visitors). The tourists now had the wind in their sails and were fixated on establishing a lead before half-time. The influential Luke had the vision to see right-centre Jordan Kahu absolutely steaming up on his outside, and his pass was perfectly taken by Kahu, who skipped past the first challenge before swan-diving over the valiant (but ultimately futile) attempt of a Rhinos player on the tryline. Luke’s conversion looked to be sailing over, but lost height at the last moment and hit the post. 10-6 to the Kiwis at half-time.
It was more of the same immediately after the restart with Leeds full-back Golding, who was ultimately named Trio Bar & Grill Man of the Match, needing to demonstrate all his strength to bring a menacing New Zealand attack. Good combination play between openside prop Jesse Bromwich and scrum-half Tuimoala Lolohea saw the latter threaten, but Lilley brought down his opposite No.7. Danny McGuire then got fans out of their seats, as he showed silky footwork to waltz pass a few challenges, but his advances did not bear fruit. Despite this chance, what was to come next was against the run of play. Left-centre Moon showcased his wide skill set, as he first demonstrated physicality to bully his way through one challenge, before demonstrating almost balletic elegance to pirouette away from another opponent and touch down.
At this stage, an expectant home crowd was now sensing that this game could go down in folklore as one of the great Headingley nights. Lilley once again displayed nerves of steel to convert, and the Rhinos were back in the lead. However, this was the highlight of the night for the locals, as the Southern Hemisphere side began to assert their dominance, as their stamina and powers of concentration shone through.
Some quick interchanges of passing between Lolohea, Ben Matulino and substitute Sam Moa almost paid off. However, New Zealand did not have to wait long before they delivered a riposte. Having pinned the Rhinos on their own tryline, they began to probe, and it was Bromwich who timed his run to perfection to run through and ground. It was at this point that the away side stretched away. Stand-half Peta Hiku’s crossfield dart came to no avail, he had the awareness to send a looping pass to Dean Whare, who sauntered through unchallenged. The conversion was missed, but New Zealand were now eight points to the good with 17 minutes to play. Four minutes later, and it was the turn of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to show quick feet and go over, and although Tom Briscoe restored some pride with a try of his own, it was starting to look an uphill task with only ten minutes remaining.
The majority of the 20,158-strong crowd by now had more modest expectations, but many seemed glad just to have witnessed such a momentous occasion, and that Leeds made a decent go of it. Further tries from Nikorima and Tuivasa-Sheck added gloss to the scoreline, as the home side struggled to sustain the intensity that had initially given their fans so much cause for optimism early on.
After the match, the crowd were able to fully show their appreciation to former Leeds greats Adrian Morley and Ali Lauitiiti, who had returned especially for this game. Tributes were paid to the three departees, with the man they call ‘Sir Kev’ receiving the most rapturous ovation. Sinfield urged the fans to stick together, and support the new crop of young players, like Golding, Lilley and Ash Handley. They will all be pushing hard for a first-team spot, along with Robbie Ward and Walters, and it illustrates what great strength-in-depth the club have. Although three instrumental players are leaving, the club has arguably never looked in ruder health. The night was rounded off fittingly with another performance of the haka, this time facing the iconic South Stand, as Lauitiiti and Leuluai joined their countrymen to entertain their hosts.
As Sinfield alluded to, it is vital that the fans continue to back the players and create a pulsating atmosphere in 2016 if they are to emulate the achievements of this campaign. Next year may well be one of transition, as the youngsters try to get up to speed with playing Super League matches on a weekly basis. One thing will not change however – the capacity to enthrall and excite the hordes of spectators with ‘open and attractive rugby.’
Featured image and second-top image: Nancy Gillen