John Davidson dissects the final round of the Super 8s, as Leeds claim the double and prescription drugs are put in the spotlight.
1. Ryan’s run
Drama. Tension. Elation. Despair. Helicopters. Friday night’s clash between Leeds and Huddersfield had all that and more; as the Rhinos took home the League Leader’s Shield thanks to a sensational last-minute try from Ryan Hall. In a bruising encounter between the two Yorkshire sides, a real backyard brawl, Leeds snuck home in the most tense of circumstances. Danny McGuire’s beautifully weighted kick, and Ryan Hall’s outstanding finish, on the buzzer meant the Shield will be housed at Headingley Carnegie for the next 12 months. Hall had a mare up until that point but didn’t he make up for it in style. It was a fantastic ending that showcased the best of rugby league.
This game can leave you on a high one minute but completely crushed in another, as Leeds and Huddersfield fans will certainly know. The Rhinos will be relieved they finally managed to get back into the winner’s circle again after a post-Wembley slump. Silverware regardless, it was a victory they craved. The Giants will have to lick their wounds but they can hold their heads high – they were again impressive on Friday and it was only a moment of freak brilliance that took the game away from them. Huddersfield will live to fight another day, as they get ready to face Wigan. If the grand final at Old Trafford can have 10% of the high drama we witnessed at the John Smith’s Stadium two days ago, then we are in for a treat in October.
Bradford took the surprise move of resting a lot of players this weekend against Halifax. They were duly hammered by Fax, going down 52-18, and now have to pick themselves off the floor for the million pound game. It was a questionable strategy from the Bulls, who surely would have like to have win behind them and a confidence boost going into such a high-pressure contest. The defeat to Halifax also meant they finished in fifth position on the table, while Halifax pipped Sheffield and Leigh into sixth. Surprisingly, Wakefield were upset by the Eagles at Bramall Lane, a result Brian Smith won’t be pleased about.
Also questionable was the supposed snubbing of the post-game press conference by Bradford coach James Lowes. According to the tweet of one journalist, Lowes “had somewhere to be” “ and didn’t do his post-match duties. That is a poor excuse and that kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated. Lowes is a passionate character and his team’s second-half capitulation wouldn’t have sat well with him. But talking to the media before and after games is part of his job, part of being a Super League coach, and you can’t shirk your duties because you don’t feel like it. It shows a lack of respect for the media but, more importantly, a lack of respect for the fans and for the game. Coaching comes with scrutiny and surely Lowes, an experienced and well-credentialed operator, knows that.
3. Young blood
With the threat of the NRL and rugby union, it’s more important than ever that Super League continues to develop players and unearth new gems. And there has some quality young talent coming to the fore this season. Jack Johnson only debuted in September against Hull FC but he has quickly shown he is a star for the future. Two tries in just four games, with a double on debut, means Warrington coach Tony Smith will have a tough choice on his hands next year with Johnson, Matty Russell, Stefan Ratchford and Kurt Gidley all potential fullbacks. Johnson isn’t the only one who’s caught the eye in 2015. Andre Savelio has gone from strength to strength for St Helens, after making his debut last year. He is destined to be a big part of Saints forward pack in the years to come with his strength and off-loading abilities.
There’s also Wigan centre Oliver Gildart, who’s displayed a good turn of pace and nose for try, and Hull FC’s Jack Logan, Huddersfield’s Jake Connor and Widnes’ Matt Whitely. Wakefield winger Tom Johnstone is another destined for good things. With some quality talent hanging up its boots this year – Adrian Morley, Matt Bowen, Gareth Carvell, Roy Asotasi, Wayne Godwin, Richie Mathers, Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leulia, to name but a few – it’s great to see a new guard coming in. No one can play forever and the evolution of new players is part and parcel of the competition. But the focus on developing and nurturing the next generation is paramount to keep Super League exciting and engaging.
4. The drugs do work
Rugby league almost had a new tragedy on its hands last week when two South Sydney players overdosed on painkillers. Dylan Walker and Aaron Gray were rushed to hospital and, thankfully, they survived and will recover. But this episode is a stark reminder of the dangers of the culture of the misuse of prescription medicine and sleeping tablets within rugby league. This might have happened in the NRL but Super League is far from immune. Tony Smith told me this week that the issue around the use of painkillers and sleeping pills is a big one in England as well and certainly needs addressing.
There are no simple answers. Players are turning to prescription drugs for a release, with alcohol slowly but surely departing from the game as the way that players unwind after a match. The adrenalin and emotion of a game can leave players unable to sleep for hours and hours. Some rely on sleeping tablets to get much needed rest. But like all drugs, there are risks attached and this method of relaxation and recovery can be a dangerous one. Education programs are there, from the clubs and the RFL, but the game needs to do more to tackle this problem and ensure players have the support and knowledge they need. There also needs to be an element of personal responsibility here, as the RFL cannot and should not keep watch of every player all the time. Players need to know what they are getting into and the dangerous associated. The suicide of Terry Newton put mental health high on the agenda and rugby league has responded in a positive manner. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a similar tragedy for the sport to get a proper handle on this issue.
5. Steel men
Tomorrow in Manchester the 2015 Super Dream Team will be announced at an event promoting the play-offs. We’ve also just had the shortlist for the Man of Steel revealed. Going for the gong are Leeds pair Zak Hardaker and Adam Cuthbertson, as well as St Helens prop Alex Walmsley. All three are worthy candidates. Hardaker has moved past his off-field issues and been dynamic on the pitch. He’s helped Leeds a to a historic Challenge Cup final win and the League Leader’s Shield. He’s bagged 10 tries in 25 appearances, accrued six try assists, made a staggered 109 tackle busts and staked a huge claim to be England’s number one against New Zealand. Cuthbertson has re-defined prop play with his offloads and ball-playing ability. The forward from Sydney’s northern beaches has thrived in Super League’s less-structured environment, adding a new dimension to the Rhinos’ attack. England selection, thanks to his heritage, would a fair reward at the end of the year.
Walmsley has been phenomenal throughout the campaign. No one in the competition had made more metres than the front-rower, and he’s also made 603 tackles, busted 119 tackles and had a huge 531 carries. Every game he gets through a mountain of work in both defence and attack. When he plays well, St Helens invariably win. Though spare a thought for Kallum Watkins. The centre has also had a brilliant season, a vital part of Leeds’ double win. Fifteen tries, 108 tackle busts, 3758 run metres and six try assists doesn’t tell the full story of his influence. It seems as though the ‘English GI’ is finally realizing just how talented he really is, a potent mixture of size, strength, pace, power, footwork and passing ability. Watkins can feel a little bit hard done by that he didn’t make the top three in what is a very special pool of players. However, at just 24 maybe the best of the centre is yet come.