Everybody involved with Leeds Rhinos could be excused for believing in fairytales following the club’s golden period of success over the past 15 years.
Three of the most influential players in the Rhinos’ history in Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kyle Leuluai bowed out in 2015 by helping the club achieve what it had never before in winning the Treble.
Two years later, childhood friends Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, who had made careers of terrorising opposition defenders in tandem, left Leeds by lifting the Super League trophy together.
This has not been a new phenomenon of the last three years, either.
Tony Smith departed for the England job off the back of an inspired Grand Final victory in 2007. NRL-bound Gareth Ellis followed in much the same vein a year later. A match-winning brace saw Lee Smith leave in a moment of glory in 2009, while 2011 saw Ali Lauitiiti and Danny Buderus sign off courtesy of an against-all-odds title win from fifth.
Though Leeds have had the privilege of waving goodbye to many of their heroes on a high, there have also been a number of unhappy endings.
Barrie McDermott retired after defeat in 2005 Grand Final to Bradford Bulls. Nobody was aware Matt Diskin had played his last game for the Rhinos when they were beaten by Wigan in a play-off semi-final in 2010. Keith Senior missed the 2011 Grand Final win after a serious knee injury ended his final campaign early.
Cruelly, Ryan Hall is following in the footsteps of Senior, the man who created so many of his tries during the first half of his career at Headingley. Hall had already announced he will move to the Sydney Roosters next year before he suffered his own season-ending injury in Leeds’ win over Toulouse last week.
It feels especially unfair given how much the winger has contributed to those fitting finales for former team-mates, scoring crucial tries in the 2008, 2011 and 2012 Grand Finals. Even when he has failed to cross the whitewash, his tireless work-rate and freakish strength meant he was never shy in making the metre-eating carries which proved so valuable when Leeds were near their own tryline.
And Hall’s role in changing the course of the season in 2015 cannot be understated. A 50-0 win over Hull KR saw the Rhinos win the Challenge Cup comfortably, but it appeared they had failed to learn the lessons of the previous season, when victory at Wembley was followed by four consecutive losses as Leeds crashed out in the play-offs.
After thrashing Hull KR, Leeds were beaten by St Helens, Catalans and Castleford. A win was required at Huddersfield to secure the League Leaders’ Shield, but the Rhinos were gassed, as the hooter sounded in that final fixture, the scores were tied and the trophy was heading in a helicopter to Wigan.
Of course, you all know what happened next. Hall pulled a rabbit out of the hat and the helicopter had to turn around and fly back over the Pennines.
There’s a train of thought which suggests that without that try Leeds could still have have gone on to win the Grand Final. Make no bones about it, you could have stuck a fork in the Rhinos, they were done. That try changed the whole momentum of the club.
After the Treble had been completed at Old Trafford, Jonathan Liew wrote in the Telegraph that “Leeds won because they forgot how to lose”. The second that ball bounced into Hall’s arms and he raced away down the touchline at the John Smith’s Stadium was the precise moment losing no longer became an option – not just in that game, but for the rest of the season.
Battered and broken, they found a way to edge out St Helens in the play-off semi-finals and suffocated Wigan in the final quarter of the Grand Final to ensure a two-point lead would not have slipped even if they had played through the rest of winter.
It’s easy to forget that for the previous 79 minutes and 59 seconds at Huddersfield, Hall had quite possibly his worst game in a Leeds shirt. In a gruelling encounter, both mentally and physically, both sides ruthlessly tried to find and exploit any chink in the opposition’s armour with little success.
For once, Hall was the weak link on the field, struggling under Danny Brough’s dizzying kicks into the floodlights’ glare and making a number of handling errors. Ultimately, it didn’t matter; Hall displayed the mental resilience to make sure he was there when it mattered, coming up with one of the most significant plays in the club’s entire history.
There’s an argument to be made that the image of Hall sprinting away, the agonising fatigue of an entire season etched across his face, chased by his supporting team-mates, each willing and hoping and praying that he just makes it to the tryline before all exploding in an eruption of irrepressible glory, is the defining picture of not just the Golden Generation, but of Leeds Rhinos’ 148-year existence.
Jumping down rows of seats and hugging random strangers in the away end, no other moment in sport has provided me with such an intense release of euphoria. On the car journey back to Leeds, my friend and I mostly sat in silence, too emotionally exhausted to communicate aside from the occasional grin and relieved laugh.
Leeds have played the ‘get out of jail free’ card on numerous occasions, but Hall broke the whole club out of Fort Knox that night. Right now it feels incredibly unjust that he won’t be going out on a similar high but, having provided the Rhinos with so many memorable moments, it’s going to be the last thing people remember when they look back on his career.