NEVER has there been a climax to a Super League game like this – and that is even before the helicopter showed up.
Leeds Rhinos are this morning two thirds of the way towards a famous treble having added the League Leaders’ Shield to their Challenge Cup in the most astonishing of fashions.
On an evening of immense drama, the destination of that trophy remained in the balance until the final hooter of the final game of the Super 8s.
After 78 minutes, Leeds were 16-14 down against Huddersfield Giants and staring at a fourth successive defeat, one which would leave them consigned to third and heading back here for a semi-final next week.
However, Huddersfield prop Craig Kopczak thoughtlessly aimed a shoulder charge that floored full-back Zak Hardaker and Leeds coach Brian McDermott told his captain Kevin Sinfield to accept the two points.
Some players looked stunned; a draw would deliver the League Leaders’ Shield to Wigan, who were simultaneously beating Castleford Tigers, although, amid all the many permutations last night, it would secure Rhinos second spot and a home semi-final against Huddersfield.
You could sense McDermott’s thinking; the Grand Final is the ultimate goal, help ourselves achieve that.
Sinfield, the veteran captain who will now get one last hurrah at Headingley before switching to Yorkshire Carnegie, duly slotted the kick but there was still more drama.
With that final play of the game, Danny McGuire aimed a kick down the left flank which Huddersfield full-back Scott Grix, for some reason, decided to let bounce.
It was a catastrophic misjudgment. Ryan Hall, the England winger, picked up and tiptoed away from him to race in for an astonishing try - his 200th for the club, fittingly - that catapulted ecstatic Leeds right back to the summit just when it mattered the most.
A helicopter had been specially commissioned by Super League and stationed at Barton aerodrome about 30 miles from Huddersfield and a similar distance to Wigan. It had set off for the DW Stadium, but with the ground in sight, had to do a U-turn back to Yorkshire.
It was heartbreaking for Huddersfield who, let’s not forget, had a chance to finish first – for the second time in three years – themselves if they won and Castleford did them a favour at Wigan.
However, for all their excellent defensive endeavour last night, they will regret some poor decision-making when it came down to those dramatic final plays.
With the game level 8-8 midway through the second period, Jamie Ellis thought he had won it for the hosts when the scrum-half scampered over for a try in the 64th minute after Hall, ironically, let a Danny Brough kick bounce.
Brough – the captain who may get in trouble for allegedly aiming a kick at Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker – converted and stretched the advantage to eight points when Jamie Peacock wrestled too long with young Giants prop Josh Johnson.
However, Tom Briscoe’s 73rd minute try after a great flick pass from Kallum Watkins saw Sinfield get the visitors back in touching distance for their first Leaders’ Shield since 2009.
Earlier, it was testimony to Huddersfield’s stubborn defence that Sinfield resorted to accepting a 40m penalty chance two minutes before the break.
His side had teased and twisted the hosts from all angles for much of the first half yet had gained little success as the Giants showed, once more, why they are such a dominant defensive force.
It proved so right up until the half-time hooter when Sinfield thought he had prized them open by finding McGuire on his inside shoulder between the posts but, yet again, that door was swiftly shut as Grix and Brett Ferres combined to smother the Leeds half-back.
Their only breakthough had come as early as the ninth minute when Sinfield’s flat pass saw Stevie Ward – who hobbled off late on – squeeze over from 10m, the Claret and Gold presumably still working out there structure. Anderson’s side immediately responded, however, when Hall inexplicably coughed up the re-start into touch.
It is the sort of rudimentary error that has peppered their recent losing sequence and Huddersfield made them pay even if their own score, as Jermaine McGillvary dived in at the corner, was scrappy stemming from one of many loose first-half passes that had damaged their chances of gaining any real rhythm.
There was plenty of passion, though, and with Sinfield and Brough each converting their side’s tries, the scores were locked at 6-6 until the Leeds captain tagged on that extra two points.
Both sides missed chances at the start of the second period, Luke Robinson and McGuire having efforts ruled out before Brough levelled with a 49th minute penalty.
Wardle then wasted a clear break for the hosts and Ellis surged clear, too, after his try only to see Hardaker knock clear his threatening kick as Leroy Cudjoe looked to pounce.
Instead, it was Leeds who edged home at the end in such classic style picking up a cheque for £100,000 and that trophy delivered by air, too.
Huddersfield Giants: Grix; McGillvary, Cudjoe, Wardle, Murphy; Brough, Ellis; Kopczak, Robinson, Huby, Ferres, Hughes, Ta’ai. Substitutes: Lawrence, Johnson, Leeming, Smith.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Garbutt, Burrow, Singleton, Ablett, Ward, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Delaney, Leuluai, Peacock, Lilley.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).