AND SO it appears Leeds Rhinos are not a one-man team after all. But maybe Wigan Warriors are.
All the pre-match hype had been about the defending champions missing their star talent Danny McGuire to a one-game suspension and how that would make their chance of defeating minor premiers Wigan all but impossible.
As it emerged, it was their battered opponents – whose coach Shaun Wane had so publicly urged for that ban – who came up short after badly missing their very own talisman.
It came as a surprise to many when England superstar Sam Tomkins was not on the Warriors teamsheet last night apparently having suffered a knee injury in training.
All of a sudden it was a level playing field again and outstanding Leeds edged it in typical fashion to move to their fifth Grand Final in six years and, remarkably, from fifth place yet again.
In all honesty, even with Man of Steel favourite Tomkins in situ, it is hard to imagine Wigan overcoming this amazing effort from Brian McDermott’s side who simply continue to defy belief.
In essence, the difference came down to captain Kevin Sinfield’s 76th-minute penalty after Wigan had battled back from 11-0 down at the interval to lead 12-11 on the hour mark.
But, in reality, it was a combination of all their customary resilience, endeavour and never-say-die attitude which got them home in a game which would have been worthy in itself of any Grand Final.
Leeds, who will play the winners of tonight’s semi-final between St Helens and Warrington next Saturday, were epic and a fifth title in six years has to be on the cards again.
Chief executive Gary Hetherington told the Yorkshire Post: “They just continue to scale new heights.
“In all the time I’ve been involved I’ve never seen a team as determined to win as tonight.
“The comments of Shanu Wane certainly gave great motivation to the lads.
“No doubt he is a very good coach but I think his comments were significant and no doubt he will learn from that mistake.”
Sinfield delivered another of his master class displays.
Those who, for some bizarre reason, put the blame for Leeds’s latest Challenge Cup final defeat firmly at the door of their captain must have been severely red-faced last night.
Although his first kick went high into the night sky and landed right back where it started, that aside, the England stand-off’s kicking was crucial as he continually pegged Wigan back.
One saw Josh Charnley charged behind his own goalline for a drop-out, another was a perfectly-executed 40/20 to demoralise Wigan further while he used all his experience to drop a goal on the half-hour following a brilliant run from full-back Zak Hardaker.
Equally so, Sinfield marshalled his side’s right-side defence expertly to thwart the threat of Brett Finch and Sean O’Loughlin putting George Carmont or Gareth Hock into space.
It was Leeds’s eagerness and efficiency in defence – rarely have Wigan’s outside runners been put under so much pressure – that set the tone.
They stifled all the hosts’ usual moves and, while so many bemused opponents are fooled by dummy-runners, McDermott’s men generally picked out the right man every time and nailed him.
If they didn’t, cover was inevitably there just like when Ryan Bailey hauled down Jeff Lima. Such continuous pressure saw Finch hurry a pass which went to ground and resulted in the opening try of the night when Rhinos centre Kallum Watkins picked up and raced 90m untouched.
Sinfield improved that 13th-minute score and added two further penalties but Wigan finally caught Leeds cold at the start of the second half when O’Loughlin took Thomas Leuluai’s inside pass and shrugged off the defence on halfway.
The captain was tackled on the Leeds 20 but a swift play-the-ball allowed Leuluai to pick his pass again, his well-timed short delivery putting Harrison Hansen through for Pat Richards to convert.
Jack Murphy – Tomkins’s 19-year-old understudy at full-back – couldn’t handle Sinfield’s next hanging kick though and, after he spilled in front of his own posts, it seemed Leeds had made him pay.
Rob Burrow – back in the scrum-half role where he made his name – produced his trademark dummy and shimmy to leave two Wigan forwards flatfooted as he sped to the line and dived over.
However, video referee Ian Smith correctly ruled that the 30-year-old had lost possession at the crucial point, Carmont vitally dislodging the ball with a desperate swinging arm as Murphy went low.
Wigan responded through Richards’s try on the hour after Finch finally escaped Leeds’s clutches and, unsurprisingly, the former Man of Steel had no trouble slotting the touchline kick to put his side in front for the first time. But Leeds would not be denied. Murphy dropped another towering Sinfield kick and Liam Farrell was caught offside trying to stop Burrow next to the posts.
Sinfield would never miss but Wigan still had one last chance when Darrell Goulding broke clear. Hardaker pulled him down and, bizarrely, with 40 seconds to go Finch attempted a drop goal which fell wide. Leeds were back at Old Trafford.
Wigan: Murphy; Charnley, Goulding, Carmont, Richards; Finch, Leuluai; Lima, O’Loughlin, Mossop, Hansen, Hock, Farrell. Substitutes: Lauaki, Smith, Flower, Hughes.
Leeds: Hardaker; Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Ablett, Hall; Sinfield, Burrow; Leuluai, Lunt, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Bailey. Substitutes: Kirke, Clarkson, Griffin, Ward.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).