AS the impromptu rendition of God Save The Queen echoed around Headingley Carnegie last night it became obvious this immense victory was as much for English rugby league as Leeds Rhinos.
It was the resilient Super League champions, however, with a display so rich in character and sheer guts, that delivered the rewards.
Leeds are, once more, the World Club Challenge champions following a classic fight against Manly Sea Eagles.
The illustrious Sydney outfit had no answer to both the spirit and brilliance of the West Yorkshire club who finally brought an end to three years of Australian dominance in this competition.
It was far from easy though. Rhinos’ Ryan Hall scored two quality tries – just as he did against the Kangaroos for England last November – to put the hosts 16-6 up at half-time but Brian McDermott’s side had to weather an almighty storm after the break before finally clinching victory in the final minutes.
Having lost their last two, including against Manly in 2009, Leeds have now lifted the trophy three times drawing level with Wigan and Bradford while Jamie Peacock, who played such a pivotal role up front, became the first person to win four titles.
When Jason King spilled the first pass of the game, Leeds supporters, the majority in a near-capacity 21,062 crowd, would have been forgiven for thinking it might just be their side’s night.
When Manly tyro Daly Cherry-Evans quickly missed touch with a penalty, all the talk of the visitors, who had played just one trial game since winning the NRL Grand Final last October, being underdone seemed to be proving correct.
However, King soon set about cooling such a theory with one massive tackle that left Brett Delaney rattled and then the entire Manly back-row unceremoniously lifted and charged Hall back with the sort of venom he will rarely see in Super League.
With the ball, the marauding Tony Williams seemed to drag Leeds defenders with him every time he gained possession and the excellent Kieran Foran’s precision kicking soon became a nuisance; the English champions were certainly in a match, no fear.
They got the first score of the evening though after great footwork from Hall left Jamie Lyon rooted and Cherry-Evans was forced to cling on too long to avert the danger.
From the penalty, the ball was moved swiftly wide and Brent Webb – so effervescent at full-back in the opening stages – delayed a short pass just long enough to make Foran stutter, Kallum Watkins hitting the hole perfectly to score.
Kevin Sinfield converted the 19th-minute try but from the re-start Leeds made the sort of elementary error which is usually capitalised on by such esteemed opponents; Ryan Bailey ran into colleague Rob Burrow and spilled in front of his own posts.
It was a sign of the resilience to come, however, that the hosts protected their line with real zeal, a series of crunching tackles which frustrated the Sea Eagles.
Peacock was towering in his first stint, the England captain – who will receive his MBE on Wednesday – proving a driving force in both attack and defence.
Manly’s own prop, the sizeable George Rose, had a definite impact for the Australians and his inroads seemed to have set them up for a response in the 27th minute.
They moved the ball slickly to the right and, for the first time, Leeds seemed exposed as Brett Stewart looked to put David Williams in the corner.
However, Hall read the play perfectly and intercepted, not only denying a certain Manly score but crucially then sprinting 95m to cross at the other end.
Sinfield improved once more but when he suffered the same fate as Cherry-Evans and failed to find touch with a penalty, Manly did strike all too easily in the 32nd minute as Foran slipped an inside pass for Brett Stewart to glide over untouched.
Jamie Lyon converted but Leeds had the last word, perhaps fortuitously, four minutes before the break, referee Ashley Klein missing a clear knock-on before Hall rose between Lyon and Williams to collect Sinfield’s hanging crossfield kick.
The captain failed to improve and, with Leeds having lost the industry of Jamie Jones-Buchchan with a leg injury, Manly narrowed the deficit in the 51st minute.
Another Foran kick this time saw Hall dither behind his own line and, from the drop out, as the pressure ratcheted up, it was Cherry-Evans, the NRL’s Dally M Rookie of the Year, who sliced over from close range.
Lyon made it 16-12 and Delaney was forced to produce a desperate tackle on Anthony Watmough as Manly pressed further.
Steve Matai thought he had brought them level when he collected Foran’s kick but video referee Ian Smith spotted the slightest of nudges from Brett Stewart in Watkins’s back and it was ruled out.
Manly wasted another great opportunity when King ran a tap penalty straight at Peacock leading with his forearm, gifting McDermott’s side another let-off.
It was a turning point.
Watkins then showed his quality footwork by escaping down the right but Foran picked off the young centre’s pass meant for Ben Jones-Bishop.
Leeds saw another chance go begging when Chris Clarkson’s scrappy offload between the posts could not be gathered by Webb but, with some rare pressure of their own, they finally saw off Manly’s challenge in the 74th minute,
Rob Burrow, at his impish best last night, danced across the field before picking out Watkins whose swiftness of hand allowed Jones-Bishop to dive in.
When Manly booted the re-start straight out, Carl Ablett completed the scoring as he latched onto Sinfield’s grubber, the captain kicking the final points.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb; Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Hardaker, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Ablett. Substitutes: McShane, Bailey, Griffin, Clarkson.
Manly Sea Eagles: B Stewart; D Williams, Lyon, Matai, Oldfield; Foran, Cherry-Evans; King, Ballin, Kite, Watmough, T Williams, G Stewart. Substitutes: Buhrer, Mauro, Lussick, Rose.
Referee: A Klein (Australia).