As Good As It Gets: The story of Leeds Rhinos’ golden generation

Being a Leeds Rhinos fan in the 21st century has been akin to winning the lottery.

Of the 11 titles Leeds have won in the club’s 148-year history, eight have come in the 13-year span up to 2017. Anyone who has supported the Rhinos in that period has certainly picked the right numbers.

While there has no doubt been plenty of lows along the way, the numerous highs have made it easy to forget that success was not always the norm at the club. For many supporters who visited Headingley during the 32-year title drought which lasted between 1972 and 2004, a championship was the stuff of dreams.

Reflecting on his formative years supporting the club in the early 90s, Lee Hicken says: “I don’t really remember much of the rugby because it was sh*t. I would go and have a cheeky cigarette in the south stand and try get someone to buy me a pint. Then Wigan or Bradford would spank us.”

That all changed in 2004, when Leeds were finally crowned champions of England by beating their old foes Bradford Bulls at Old Trafford, sparking a period of unprecedented success which is yet to end.

As CEO of the Leeds-based media company The City Talking, Hicken has now taken it upon himself to document the Golden Age of Leeds Rhinos with the film ‘As Good As It Gets’, which has been born as much out of those baron years as it has those laden with trophies.

“Leeds were the nearly men for so long,” he says. “If Leeds had always won stuff this wouldn’t have been an extraordinary story.”

Hicken has already played his part in one film project which shone a light on a glorious period for the city with ‘Do You Want To Win?’, the excellent documentary on the unfairly forgotten Leeds United side which stormed from the doldrums of the second division to the first division title, becoming the last champions before Sky erased anything pre-1992 from the history books.

And it was the premiere of ‘Do You Want To Win?’ which sparked the idea for ‘As Good As It Gets’.

“Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Alex Simmonds came to the premiere, loved it, and suggested we should do one for the Rhinos. I met them a day or two after. There were no plans to make a rugby film after ‘Do You Want To Win?’, and they originally mentioned doing a film on the Great Britain side, but it didn’t really excite me as they haven’t toured for quite a while.

“With Jamie on board it was a better story to look at what you can call the ‘Golden Generation’. Only Jamie could make it work from a cast point of view, he could make all the right introductions. Thankfully, he’s amazing. He’s so articulate and a great storyteller.”

With Buchanan taking the role as co-producer, Hicken went on a 10-month quest to speak to as many people as possible to cut to the heart of Leeds’ dominance since 2004.

While a host of players appear in the film, it was also a priority to speak to those in the wider game to give a perspective from all sides. Tanya Arnold provides an insight from the media, lifelong fans share their stories and Kath Hetherington, who walked out at a Challenge Cup final opposite husband Gary as chairperson of Hull FC, reveals what it was like to compete against the club – and her partner.

“The starting point of who to speak to was who has been most influential over a period of time,” Hicken says. “So you have Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who had been there from the very start.

“Then you have your players who have been there for a shorter time but had a big impact, like Jamie Peacock. And then you have your ‘moment’ people as well, like Ryan Hall, because of the try at Huddersfield; Tom Briscoe, because of his five tries at Wembley.

“Because of the nature of this team lots of people fall into that first bracket of having been through it all. Even Ryan Hall, who wasn’t there immediately, has still been there years now, but you look back and it was initially Scott Donald scoring tries in Grand Finals.

“Brian McDermott was the first interview we did. I’d never met him before and only seen him on the telly so thought it was going to go one of two ways: either he’s going to be really open or he could just stonewall it. He was brilliant; really honest and another good storyteller. He has got a lot of perspective on sport and life in general.”

The most revealing story will quite possibly be that of Zak Hardaker, who joined the club as a teenager from Featherstone Rovers and developed from a promising rookie among a host of successful senior players to Man of Steel, only to leave the club under a cloud of personal and disciplinary issues in 2016.

Hardaker’s form for Castleford Tigers the following season suggested Leeds had made a mistake, until he was infamously banned for failing a drugs test on the eve of the Grand Final between the two sides.

“We actually interviewed Zak a couple of days before his ban came out,” Hicken says. “He was incredible though, and I thought he had sorted himself out. He admitted he shouldn’t have done certain things and said he had learned his lesson.

“This was the day after their semi-final. It was at my house, and I had Stevie Ward walking out and Zak walking in and they were laughing, saying, ‘I’ll have you next week!’. It was bizarre.

“But Zak felt like he had a lot of perspective. It’s hard to not like him, as much as he has got himself into trouble. He has never been anything but charming and polite and humble whenever I’ve met him.

“I asked him about his bad behaviour and his tendency to party and he was really open and honest about it. Hopefully this will be the wake-up call he needs.”

Throughout our chat, the one word which Hicken can’t help but return to is “unbelievable”.

Leeds’ concentrated success in a salary-capped sport is “unbelievable”. The 2015 Treble was “unbelievable” – and, according to those in the game he has spoken to, unlikely to be repeated. The sacrifices which went on behind the scenes from all those involved, many of which will come to light for the first time in the documentary, are “unbelievable”.

It is this word which gives Hicken the hope that the film will eventually appeal to a wider audience than just rugby league fans.

“What they’ve achieved, and to do it with a core of people either from Leeds or who support Leeds, it just doesn’t happen. It won’t happen at Leeds again, I don’t think; that was a once in a lifetime squad.

“We’re not making this film for rugby league fans. I want rugby league fans to love it, but I want some 18-year-old girl in China to enjoy this film. She might not know anything about rugby league but she’ll love the people, the passion and the challenge against adversity. Leeds Rhinos have got that in abundance. There are so many good stories.”

The title of the film, As Good As It Gets, was announced midway through the 2017 season. As has been the case since 2004, Leeds refused to follow the script, and come the end of the year were lifting the Super League trophy yet again, upsetting all the odds with a masterclass against a Castleford side which until that point had dominated all put before them.

That victory will be a monument to the lasting legacy left by all those involved in Leeds’ Golden Generation – and ‘As Good As It Gets’ will be a reminder to Rhinos supporters of just how fortunate they have been to witness such history.

For more information about ‘As Good As It Gets’ visit www.agaigfilm.com

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