Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

It’s a very English way of looking at things – and, of course, it depends on which team you support. We find it hard, embarrassing almost, to fete excellence.

Our naturally reserved demeanour and class system-based deference, especially in a sport that is by its very nature anti-establishment, is why we so love an underdog and value effort and a fair contest.

Records are there to be broken and history made. Before the Challenge Cup final many feared that if Leeds, in their current form, started with the same intensity they showed against St Helens in the semi-final they would establish an early insurmountable lead.

That Rovers, without many strike options on the wide pitch – which is why they had to go with the unpredictable and pace of Kieran Dixon and risk Albert Kelly – would struggle to win from behind.

And truly great sides who erode an opposition’s physicality and confidence, tend to score the majority of their points late on – this is an incredibly cruel sport when it comes to constant weight of possession for a truly dominant side.

Rather than focus extensively on the ‘new’ Wembley still not getting the final it craves, , maybe we should be adding this exceptional Leeds team to the pantheon of past greatest-ever sides.

Especially on a day that the sport as a whole, celebrating its 120th birthday, came over magnificently on international television – the statue unveiling and astonishing, tear-jerking Lizzie Jones ensuring that.

To Hunslet’s all-four cup winners at the turn of the last century, Huddersfield’s ‘team of all the talents’ around the First World War, Wigan’s total dominance from the mid-1980s to the start of Super League and various others along the way, should now be added this generational Leeds side – and there should be no apology for that.

It is an incredible group of men who play the sport the right way, in the kind of style that entrances and enhances the sport. The Ladbrokes Challenge Cup has been revitalised this year thanks to Leigh and Hull KR and a definitive statement in the final from a rare breed does not detract from that.

There is a steely, inner determination within this Rhinos group to salute it’s departees in the most fitting manner, allied to a willingness to move the ball to what is generally acknowledged as one of the best back divisions the game has seen, unlocked in 2015 by the arrival of Adam Cuthbertson.

To play this sport for so long, at such a high level, to take the weekly physical beatings and continually maintain mental concentration is unfathomable for the majority of those who just watch and admire; the motivation necessary almost impossible to imagine.

But in a season where they farewell three of the greatest to pull on the shirt – the finest skipper and points scorer, the best-ever signing, and most decorated overseas player – Leeds have that super-charged inner desire and Hull KR, understandably, were submerged by it.

The Rovers fans in the build up were magnificent, clearly revelling in being at the national stadium for the first time in close on 30 years and superb at the end when tranches stayed to salute their men who were, simply, never allowed to have say.

Kevin Sinfield offered them genuine solace in the magnanimous manner he always has as a victor, saying: “I have lost five finals and I know how tough it must be. I thought they had a real dig and I’d urge their fans to stick with them. I know how much hurt their players will be going through. We are happy and thankful, but to Hull KR, I’d say have faith in where they are going and what they are doing.”

He also hinted that the respective intensity of preparation brought about the eights might have been an issue.

And Leeds as a club have been on the end of similar thrashings to that suffered by Rovers, not least in the Premiership Final in 1995 when all-conquering Wigan won 69-12 at Old Trafford, setting a host of records in the competition.

That day few cared for whether the blue and amber had been an abject let-down, we rightly revelled in the performance of a new, emerging hat-trick star, Harry Sunderland winner Kris Radlinski and the goal kicking prowess of Frano Botica as the cherry and white pack ran rampant.

‘Mighty Wigan completed the first ever Grand Slam’ said the headlines and, maybe, that is how this Leeds team should be evaluated for what they have achieved over the last 11 seasons.

Tom Briscoe’s five-try feat should be lauded, imagine a footballer scoring five goals in the FA Cup decider and Brian McDermott’s role should be re-evaluated, not least by some Rhinos fans who are still sceptical as to his ability, possibly because of his seemingly taciturn demeanour.

He has come up with a different blueprint for the big games each time that has invariably worked.

The broadest smiles are at Headingley the morning after the morning after.


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