LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington has revealed he always thought the club’s 66-10 humiliation at Castleford Tigers in March – which prompted his open letter to disgruntled fans – was a “one-off” and the club appearing in yet another Grand Final proves the point.
He was speaking at Old Trafford yesterday as the two sides completed their press duties ahead of preparing to meet for the fifth time this year in Saturday’s Super League decider.
That second-placed Leeds have reached a 10th Grand Final is testimony to the work they have done this term especially having spent most of last year near the foot of the table and in danger of relegation.
It is certainly a far cry, too, to seven months ago when Hetherington suggested in that message to supporters that players and staff, including head coach Brian McDermott, could be under threat after a record-breaking defeat at their derby rivals.
“That seems a long time ago,” he said of his email to supporters.
“The defeat at Castleford –and the measure of it – was quite alarming. I asked a question, which I didn’t know the answer to, which was, ‘Is this a one-off occurrence, that can and does happen in sport, or is it symptomatic of an on-going problem?’
“Only time would tell and I think it has. What I was hoping and honestly believed at the time was that it was a one-off and a combination of Castleford being outstanding on the night and us being below-form.
“The question was answered quite emphatically with the team’s results and performances in subsequent games. It was a one-off occurrence and Castleford have inflicted that type of defeat on other teams throughout the year. A feature of the season has been their outstanding form.”
Castleford, of course, went on to secure a maiden League Leaders’ Shield by a record 10 points but their entire campaign now comes down to 80 minutes in Manchester on Saturday night.
Hetherington hopes Leeds will win a fourth title in seven years since McDermott took over, but, regardless, said: “We have made the top two and gone on to the Grand Final. We can look back on a terrific season and one in which the players and coaching staff have shown a hunger and desire and have backed up their determination to make amends for a very disappointing 2016.
“I am delighted for them. Whenever we have been beaten we have always backed up with a victory, which is testament – once again – to the team’s resilience.”
Hetherington, meanwhile, has confirmed Leeds will move next year’s World Club Series clash with one of Australia’s top teams to Elland Road. They and Castleford are due to take part in a two-game showdown against their NRL equivalents in February, Melbourne Storm having beaten North Queensland Cowboys 34-6 in their final on Sunday.
Although Tigers will use their Wheldon Road home, Headingley is undergoing a major redevelopment and Hetherington acknowledges it makes sense to switch.
“We have been talking to Leeds United – based on a ‘what if’ scenario – and have made arrangements to play it there,” he said.
“They have been outstanding, very supportive, accommodating and a pleasure to deal with.”
Rhinos won their maiden World Club Challenge at Elland Road when beating Canterbury Bulldogs in 2005 and played three more such games there, but their last trio of appearances have all been at Headingley.
McDermott has confirmed the luckless Stevie Ward will not play in the final after dislocating his shoulder in Friday’s win over Hull FC, but the second-row has not yet been ruled out of England’s World Cup plans with the squad due to be named next week.
“They couldn’t get the shoulder back in on Friday so they had to keep him in (hospital) and do it with gas and air,” said the coach.
“Obviously he’s in a bad way, but he turned up (yesterday morning) and I don’t think long-term it will be too bad. He’s seeing a specialist here in Manchester.”
With fellow second-row Brett Delaney also ruled out, McDermott could recall Jimmy Keinhorst and he says he has yet to decide on the full-back role between Ash Golding and Jack Walker.
In contrast, Castleford are set to be at full strength, second-row Oliver Holmes having trained yesterday following a groin injury before coach Daryl Powell took all his squad to Old Trafford to gain familiarity with the surroundings ahead of a meal and overnight stop in Manchester.
Super League chiefs are expecting a 74,000 sell-out for the final.