A 16-year-old winger was Leeds Rhinos’ Gold-en girl as they produced an outstanding performance to shock league leaders Castleford Tigers in the Betfred Women’s Super League Grand Final.
Tigers led for 53 minutes, but a quick-fire brace of tries by player of the match Fran Goldthorp turned the game on its head.
It looked like Rhinos - who finished third in the table, five points behind Tigers - would be blown away in the early stages, but they clawed their way back into the game and were worthy winners in a tight, tense contest.
It was Leeds’ third trophy-winning success over Castleford in two seasons.
Tigers have been the best and most consistent team this year, but - as in the Coral Challenge Cup final three months ago - Rhinos were better when it mattered.
Tigers got off to the perfect start, scoring two unconverted tries inside the opening six minutes, both after mistakes by Leeds in their own half.
Rhinos pulled four points back on their first excursion into Tigers’ territory, after 13 minutes and there was no further scoring before the break.
Leeds were eventually the next to score, with 23 minutes left and that was the first of three touchdowns in 13 minutes which transformed a four-point deficit into a lead by 12.
Cas replied with their third try to set up a tense finish, but they had left themselves too much to do.
The final was the first Women’s Super League game broadcast live on Sky television and both sets of players rose to the occasion.
There were errors, but also some good rugby played - Leeds’ first and third tries would be tough to better at any level - and the defensive commitment was first-class.
Leeds did the basics better and Tigers seemed to go away from their game plan after a dominant start.
Rhinos’ Amy Johnson spilled the ball in the first carry from the kick-off and, in the set from the resulting scrum, Tigers moved the ball swiftly right and Maisie Lumb went over at the corner from Lucy Eastwood’s pass, after just 80 seconds.
Then Danielle Anderson knocked-on inside Leeds’ half and on the final tackle Rhiannion Marshall fired a cut-out pass to Lacey Owen, in the left-centre, and she cut through to touchdown.
Tata Stanley couldn’t convert either and Leeds had an escape moments after the second try when Goldthorpe dropped Georgia Roch’s cross kick, but some strong defence forced Shona Hoyle to fumble just short.
Among Rhinos’ injured players was centre Sophie Robinson who suffered an horrific broken leg in a league game against York.
Rhinos have close links with Army rugby league, who recommended Abby Eatock as a replacement.
Eatock scored the stoppage-time match winner in last week’s semi-final at St Helens and the teenager again demonstrated remarkable finishing ability when she collected Hanna Butcher’s inside pass and out-paced full-back Stanley on a dash to the line.
It was her seventh try in her fifth appearance, one of those being as a substitute.
Courtney Hill’s conversion was off-target.
Though it took a strong tackle by Butcher to keep Stanley out from Roche’s terrific pass, Leeds looked more threatening for the rest of the half, but Castleford’s defence was excellent and Leeds’ couldn’t create any clear chances.
Stanley pulled Anderson down when she looked set to burst clear and Kelsey Gentles made a fine tackle to drag Sophie Nuttall into touch on the first play from a scrum near Tigers’ line.
Castleford came closest to scoring before the break, though, with some terrific handling by Sinead Peach, Grace Field, Jasmine Cudjoe, Stanley and Eastwood, but Leeds’ left-side defence forced Lumb to lose possession just short.
Castleford went up a gear at the start of the second half and Leeds had to scramble desperately on their own line, particularly after an error by Eatock a few metres out.
At the other end Hill, Leeds’ captain and the newly-crowned Woman of Steel, almost ghosted over, but Cudjoe made an outstanding read to make the try-saving tackle.
Cas did a good job of keeping Hill quiet, but she took hold of the game in the final half an hour.
Hill broke free to set up an equalising score 17 minutes into the second half, going one way and then the other to slip out a pass to Goldthorp, who finished well at the left corner.
That was also unconverted, but Leeds hit the front with 15 minutes left in spectacular style, again through Goldthorp.
The pacy youngster took the ball from acting-half inside Leeds’ territory, went straight through the defence and stepped past the full-back.
Referee Greg Dolan awarded the try, though it looked as though Hollie Dodd may have managed to hold her up.
Hill added the extras and then produced a brilliant pass to send Elle Frain through a gap five minutes later, the captain again adding the extras.
Tigers weren’t league leaders for nothing. They looked down and out, but grabbed a lifeline with seven minutes remaining through the tiny but tough Gentles, who slid over from Roche’s pass, though it was too far out for Stanley to tag on the two and Leeds held on.
Castleford Tigers: Stanley, Lumb, Eastwood, Owen, Gentles, Roche, Cudjoe, Field, Peach, Hoyle, Dodd, Renouf, Marshall. Subs Watts, Lumley, Townend, Slowe.
Leeds Rhinos: Beevers, Nuttall, Eatock, Kerrigan, Goldthorp, Butcher, Hill, Anderson, Gaines, Johnson, Staveley, Booth, Webster. Subs Bennett, Frain, Priim, Oldroyd.
Referee: Greg Dolan (Batley).