From Leeds Rhinos’ rise and fall to Castleford Tigers’ renaissance - the highlights of the rugby league decade

MAGIC MOMENT: Leeds Rhinos' Ryan Hall breaks free to score the game-winning try against Huddersfield Giants to clinch the League Leaders' Shield back in 2015. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com
MAGIC MOMENT: Leeds Rhinos' Ryan Hall breaks free to score the game-winning try against Huddersfield Giants to clinch the League Leaders' Shield back in 2015. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com
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Looking back on the decade, the obvious rugby league highlight would be Leeds Rhinos’ 2015 Grand Final success as – with so many rich seams of narrative – they at last won the previously elusive ‘treble’.

No side had achieved the triumvirate of Grand Final, Challenge Cup and League Leader’ Shield glory since the imperious St Helens in 2006 and the only other team to do so in the summer era was Bradford Bulls three years before that.

With legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai all also retiring from the sport, Leeds’ win over Wigan Warriors at Old Trafford was, then, a fitting tribute in so many ways.

However, it was one story within that epic story which truly stood out as the iconic rugby league moment of the 2010s – and, crucially, went some way to ensuring the rest occurred.

Going into a dramatic final night of regular action in 2015, all of the top-four – Wigan, Leeds, Huddersfield Giants and Saints – could still actually claim the League Leaders’ Shield.

Indeed, Super League had a helicopter on standby ready to deliver the trophy wherever needed, adding to all the intrigue.

Castleford's players celebrate as captain Michael Shenton lifts the 2017 League Leaders Shield.'Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Castleford's players celebrate as captain Michael Shenton lifts the 2017 League Leaders Shield.'Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Initially, that helicopter was on its way to Wigan as Shaun Wane’s team eased towards a one-sided win over Castleford Tigers but then it was forced into a swift U-turn following a remarkable twist in West Yorkshire.

Leeds had claimed the Challenge Cup after a successful defence of that trophy the previous month at Wembley but knew they needed to win at Huddersfield to secure top spot.

Yet, after another stuttering performance, they were on course for a fourth-straight loss entering the final stages and it looked like they would finish third, returning to Huddersfield the following week in the semis.

Nevertheless, Rhinos captain Sinfield kicked a penalty to level the game in the 78th minute; some players looked incredulous as it appeared his side were settling for a point, second place and a home play-off semi-final rather than pushing for glory.

It is also one of the sport’s images of the decade with the ecstatic England winger clenching his fist in celebration before he even reaches the line, a beaming smile of joy as the realisation hits home what is about to happen.

Dave Craven

However, the glory was still to come. There seemed nothing on when, in the final seconds and deep in their own half, Danny McGuire chipped over. Huddersfield full-back Scott Grix, though, let it bounce and Ryan Hall nipped in before racing away for his 200th try in Leeds colours and victory.

It is also one of the sport’s images of the decade with the ecstatic England winger clenching his fist in celebration before he even reaches the line, a beaming smile of joy as the realisation hits home what is about to happen.

Team-mate Joel Moon wheels away in delight both arms aloft, McGuire doing likewise, while there is a look of utter resignation on the face of chasing Huddersfield winger Jermaine McGillvary.

With the forlorn Grix grounded on the touchline back in the distance, helplessly looking on (their hopes of a home semi-final gone), it was one of the most dramatic moments Super League has ever seen let alone the last decade.

England's Sam Burgess celebrates with Kevin Sinfield (right) after scoring a try during the World Cup Semi Final at Wembley against New Zealand, although the day was to end in heartache for the hosts. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

England's Sam Burgess celebrates with Kevin Sinfield (right) after scoring a try during the World Cup Semi Final at Wembley against New Zealand, although the day was to end in heartache for the hosts. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Rhinos, of course, came from behind to beat defending champions St Helens in the semi-final at Headingley, Sinfield’s timely 40/20 proving the turning point, and they duly delivered again in Manchester.

They lifted four league titles in the 2010s (no club won more) and also ended their long wait for Wembley glory, winning in 2014 and 12 months later.

When it comes to the game of the decade, things get more difficult but, few could argue against the 2013 World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand at Wembley.

Granted, the result did not go the hosts’ way as Shaun Johnson famously broke English hearts with the very last play.

Recollecting that moment, just 20 seconds from the end, it still always seems to occur in slow-motion as the Kiwi half-back side-stepped the onrushing Sinfield to finally break the resolve of Steve McNamara’s side. Devastation.

Still, England contributed so much to such an utterly thrilling game and one which, in front of the BBC cameras, was an almost perfect advert for the sport.

There was terrific displays all over but the brilliant Sam Burgess gave a once in a lifetime performance (well, twice, given his NRL Grand Final heroics the following season). Former England captain Jamie Peacock labelled it the best by an England player in 20 years and argued you would need to go back to the days of Ellery Hanley to get anywhere near.

Praise, indeed.

When it comes to a signing of the decade, this, too, is almost impossible to nail down. Yet Hull FC’s decision to bring Gareth Ellis home from Australia in 2012 will go down as one of their greatest-ever captures as he helped them finally end their Wembley hoodoo.

Now 38, the influential forward is still going strong.

As much as Leeds’ exploits will rightly be remembered, watching Castleford’s breathtaking style in 2017 remains one of my favourite experiences when it comes to rugby league highlights from the decade.

Surging to their only top-place finish in the club’s 93-year history, Daryl Powell’s side exuded class, brio and generated such excitement.

They were a pleasure to watch, so refreshing and, in my eyes, even more captivating than the current Saints team which so ruthlessly powered to victory this year. Admittedly, Castleford got things badly wrong when it came to the actual Grand Final against Leeds in 2017; that defeat will linger long in their memory.

Who knows what would have happened if stellar full-back Zak Hardaker had not been hit with a drugs ban just 48 hours earlier.

Still, maybe the 2020s will see Tigers finally realise their potential and break that duck.