Leeds Rhinos' Liam Sutcliffe centring attention on Grand Final bow
The 22-year-old crucially broke clear to surge over for a vital try against Hull FC in last week’s semi-final, showing the sort of finishing prowess that has seen him successfully switch from stand-off to centre this term.
Kallum Watkins added the conversion for the narrow 18-16 win and ever since Brian McDermott’s side have been busily preparing for Saturday’s title decider against favourites Castleford Tigers.
For Sutcliffe, it is a particularly exciting time; for many of this Leeds side have savoured the occasion before, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire having won it seven times each, he is getting ready for his debut on Super League’s big night.
He was sat in the stands, still recovering from a knee reconstruction, when Rhinos beat Wigan Warriors to win the 2015 Grand Final, completing an historic treble.
Although the Leeds-born player completed a successful return to fitness last term, the Super League giants endured myriad problems and spent most of the campaign rooted near the foot of the table.
They are more like Leeds of old now, however, and ahead of the club’s 10th Grand Final, Sutcliffe admitted: “It is a massive game and one of the games you want to be involved in when you are a kid.
“You want to be part of the whole week and the game itself and I can’t wait.
“Last year was a very tough year for us and to bounce back like we have and be second in the league, semi-finalists in the Challenge Cup and to get to the Grand Final is massive.
“We have had some bad times this year, but we’ve managed to put them behind us and really bounce back from them whereas last year we didn’t.”
Although it is first versus second on Saturday night, League Leaders’ Shield winners Castleford have beaten Leeds all four times they have met this term.
Along the way, Daryl Powell’s side have amassed 156 points conceding just 64 at an average score of 39-16, although the biggest scoreline in that run was Castleford’s record-breaking 66-10 rout in March.
Only last month, Leeds were 30-6 behind at half-time in their Super 8s contest although they did recover to lose just 38-24.
Sutcliffe recalled: “From the first half we couldn’t really do much worse. We turned it around in the second half, but we were still not pleased with how we played and really disappointed to lose the game.
“But the last few weeks we have improved game on game and hopefully we can go one better on Saturday. It is all on the day, but how Cas have performed this year is credit to them. They have been the outstanding team all year and they’ve never dropped off once. It is going to be a massive ask for us and we are going to have to be at our very best, but I think anything can happen in a Grand Final.”
Although initially earmarked as a No 6 or loose forward since joining from Hunslet Warriors and coming through the Headingley academy ranks, Sutcliffe – with his tall, powerful frame – is increasingly looking more at home as a centre following Joel Moon’s switch to stand-off.
He will face veteran Kiwi international Jake Webster on Saturday, the former Melbourne Storm star who has enjoyed a new lease of life at Wheldon Road in recent seasons and is one of the most powerful centres around.
“It hasn’t been a bad year for me,” said Sutcliffe, with 10 tries from 27 appearances.
“I have been playing centre for the last couple of months and I’ve been enjoying that role.
“Hopefully on Saturday I’ll have a good game and we can win as a team and lift that trophy again. Getting to the Grand Final is a massive buzz and we’ve shown a lot of character, especially to hold out in the last 20 minutes of the semi-final (against Hull).
“That was a tough game but it’s what we needed. We know it is going to be a tough game this week and Castleford will throw everything at us.
“Hopefully we can withstand that and build some pressure of our own.”
And for Sutcliffe he can show his improving talent in front of his biggest audience yet.
Dewsbury’s James Child will referee his first Grand Final.
A member of the Dewsbury and Batley Referee’s Society, Child took charge of his first Super League match in 2009.