Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

Fortune doesn’t just favour the brave, it envelops and embraces all of us who follow or are involved in rugby league.

It may be divisive and excluding to continually refer to it as ‘the greatest game’ – if you don’t see that, then it’s your fault – but on Saturday night, it came pretty damn close to the billing.

Vested interest in the result or not, Old Trafford was never less than exceptional; as an occasion in its own right, a showcase and the full, spellbinding 80 minutes.

We were spoilt by 34 men who, to coin a well-worn but appropriate phrase, ‘tipped their guts’, laid themselves bare for their team mates, families and us.

They put the sport on a pedestal, two Grand Finals on opposite sides of the world in full stadia to watching millions around the globe with talking points, drama and unavowed heroism to last a generation – how lucky are we.

If we can’t trade off the back of the drama, spectacle and emotion of the Leeds and Wigan epic, the storylines it generated and profiles written, we never will.

In many ways we had a perfect storm. England failing in the union world cup which scuppered their Manchester spoiling tactics and us selling out Old Trafford, with the two best supported sides getting there.

Articles of comparison were written, some complimentary, others – which included, by extension, blaming league for union’s ills – patronising but, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”

Three points in total between the teams in the respective hemisphere showcases – that’s some wow-factor.

Incredible feats from superhuman men in a cauldron here for which the RFL must take credit for producing.

Not necessarily the structure that got us there, if we are serious about duty of care – and an international side that will drive the sport forward faster than anything else, look how many in both the England and Kiwi squads are missing having surgery – then we have to protect our greatest asset by playing them less.

What the governing body has nailed is putting on an event, even wizened stewards at Old Trafford who have seen it all, including European nights with global appeal, were knocked out by the atmosphere – the din, colour, vibrancy, speed – the attack on all the senses.

Nor was there an underdog, this was two teams at their peak with so many reasons to win, stories that everyone became wrapped up in.

Leeds aren’t many people’s second favourite side but there were lots of fans of other clubs that recognised what a fitting tribute it would be to a trio of departing players of the rarest breed who were making their final appearances; men who epitomise the values and ethics of the sport and wear the badge of courage, bravery and honour openly and with supreme distinction.

Speaking to so many of those involved afterwards, on both sides, that was the difference between two teams who played from the off, there was nothing cagey about the 2015 Grand Final, no slow burner; it blistered in the build up and caught fire from Tom Briscoe’s offload in the opening set.

Matty Bowen in his final performance – even more astonishingly on the back of his wife giving birth the night before, there were subplots and back stories everywhere – could have done little more to mark his farewell with a stupendous performance for the Warriors.

His try will rank as one of the best solo efforts on that stage, he was immense under duress and a constant threat, he picked up a number of Harry Sunderland nominations.

Liam Farrell topped the tackles for Wigan and metres made in the game, including a rip-roaring run for the opening try which set the stage for what was to follow.

But, ultimately, this was about Leeds’s three muskateers.

The Rhinos won for those team mates, no matter they were playing their 36th week, nor even that an unprecedented triple – they’d never won a double – was on the line, but because they desperately wanted to send out their heroes in the fitting manner.

That’s how they dredged the barrel one more time, the last 17 minutes after they’d retaken the lead the proof, in the end it was Wigan, the seemingly fresher side, who were broken – by the Rhinos will.

New Man of Steel Zak Hardaker summed up best the feelings of everyone associated with a dressing room that has included Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai for so long and with such success.

“It’s been an honour to be involved in this team and this piece of history just tops it all off,” he said in the media mixed zone as thoughts began to sink in.

“I’d have traded anything I’ve got, anything in the cabinet, just to send these three guys off in great style, I’d have done anything to come up with the goods for them. I’ve been so proud to be associated with these three blokes. They’ve taught me a lot in both rugby terms and in wider life and as a professional.”

Those players defined an era, and their team mates made sure it was crowned in the most appropriate manner.

But the trio themselves were at the core of victory, this was no sentiment. Peacock topped the tackles – 49 to go with 50s in the preceding two weeks that had seen a Shield won and semi-final conquered.

That would be astonishing if he was 10 years younger.

Sinfield, head split and twice stitched, kicked the final, inevitably, winning goal – the third highest points’ scorer in the sport’s 120 year history, just let that sink in, no matter the silverware.

And Kylie Leuluai, the silent one, who was happy to ride on the coat tails of the others when it came to farewells, revealed almost in passing that he should have retired after Wembley having been diagnosed with a heart murmur which accounted for his limited game time thereafter.

Every minute he put in, though, mattered and laying his life on the line for his team and the sport marks him out for equal greatness; we truly are not worthy as fans.

It was a simply magnificent end to the season, the last month in the shop window almost beyond comprehension.

Sport demands winners and losers but rugby league gained the most this weekend. We captivated, enthralled and astonished; re-emphasised everything that is best with dignity and respect from dredged souls.

We can ask for no more and we may never see a treble or their like again.

The broadest smiles are in Leeds the morning after the night before last.


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