Leeds 22 Wigan 20: Rhinos finally get better of Wigan thanks to unlikely hero Walters

Rhinos Josh Walters powers over for his try.
Rhinos Josh Walters powers over for his try.
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FOR a few concerning minutes it looked like even Leeds Rhinos’ innate Old Trafford match-winning quality would not be enough.

It seemed incomprehensible but this was an outstanding Wigan team, arguably as good as any the West Yorkshire side had faced in Super League’s endgame since suffering their last defeat here against Bradford Bulls in 2005.

Furthermore, for all this was to be the royal send-off for Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, it was a retiring player on the opposition – the brilliant full-back Matt Bowen – who was threatening to ruin it all.

Indeed, if the Queenslander’s outrageous individual try, bamboozling otherwise iron-like Leeds defenders for once with his dazzling weaving run to the posts, had proved the decisive act, it would have been a worthy definitive moment.

Rarely has a finer try been scored on Super League’s big night, the 33-year-old converting the 49th-minute effort with his fourth goal of the evening to nudge his side in front for a second time at 20-16.

Increasingly vibrant Wigan, who finished second behind Leeds after 30 rounds only due to an inferior points difference, had then scored twice in four minutes after Dom Manfredi had pickpocketed Ryan Hall and helped overcome a 16-6 interval deficit.

They had that word uttered ubiquitously in rugby league; momentum.

Did patched-up Leeds, aiming for a maiden treble but having admittedly spluttered into this Grand Final, really have anything left in the tank?

This morning it seems absurd even asking the question. Of course they did.

It was an unlikely match-winner, though; Josh Walters’s last game of a dual-registration deal was for Hunslet Hawks against Doncaster in July.

The sleight second-row, aged just 20 and having only started playing rugby league two years ago after switching from Leeds Carnegie, was only parachuted into the squad earlier in the week.

Walters had made just one start for Rhinos all season yet there he was, not long after coming off the bench in his first Grand Final, popping up to score after Manfredi had dropped Danny McGuire’s latest towering kick in the 63rd minute.

Sinfield stepped up for the 1,792nd and final time to kick a successful goal for his beloved Leeds, this time the conversion proving the points that sealed possibly the finest of the seven Grand Final wins under his command since the first in 2004.

It also ended the club’s record of having never defeated Wigan in a major final.

The remainder of the game was obviously tense but, in fairness, it was Leeds who finished stronger and if not for some remarkable defence from Michael McIlorum and the splendid Liam Farrell, the winning margin would have been greater.

Again, though, easy to write now.

Rhinos coach Brian McDermott, securing his first title with them since successive glories in 2011 and 2012, was understandably proud of what he had witnessed.

“It’s not won through execution of skill,” he explained.

“It’s won through endeavour and will and determination; just toughness.

“They are a tough group of men. These two (half-backs Sinfield and McGuire) more than most; they get ran at more than anyone else and come under so much cosh yet they put themselves on that platform every single time saying ‘I’ll try to execute another play even though I know I’m going to come off worse and get put on my backside’.

“It’s more than what a prop goes through or an outside back; they are on the front-line receiving all the bullets and still come up with the goods and that’s true toughness.

“Put into context I think it is the best win yet.

“I wasn’t here for the three-in-a-row (2007-09) and others will have to qualify whether this is up there as that in itself was unbelievably special. I’m not sure whether that will ever get done again.

“But to do the treble in the same year, and send those players off like that, is brilliant. It will stay with us forever.”

McGuire’s two first-half tries, his first set up by Sinfield’s pinpoint grubber and the second a superb move involving some silky interchange from Tom Briscoe and Kallum Watkins down the right, was certainly the bedrock of the win and why he earned the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match.

However, how the officials – both the referee Ben Thaler and his video colleagues – failed to decide the scrum-half fumbled forward in the build-up to Joel Moon’s controversial score in between McGuire’s brace is anyone’s guess.

Similarly, how the magnanimous Wigan coach Shaun Wane managed not to launch into a tirade about that boggling video referee decision was impossible to comprehend, too. There was a significant pause as he contemplated the burning question. That silence spoke volumes.

His side had sprinted into a fourth-minute lead after Farrell caught Sinfield rooted near halfway and eased through to supply Joe Burgess but parity was restored immediately when Matty Smith spilled the kick-off setting up position for McGuire to strike.

A true sporting epic was up and running and, though the Wigan side he supports lost, how Steffon Armitage, the exiled Toulon flanker criminally overlooked by England for their doomed World Cup, must have been glad he pointedly ignored his country’s union dead-rubber against Uruguay across the city at Etihad for this visual feast.