THE game of rugby league should demand more nights like this.
Not for the sentimental stuff – no one really wants to see such a plethora of greats as Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leuluai, Adrian Morley and Ali Lauitiiti all bow out in one fell swoop as they did at a sold-out Headingley last night.
No, more for the chance to witness British club sides tackling international powerhouses as Leeds Rhinos, illustrating their treble-winning prowess, duly did here against New Zealand.
They led on the hour mark and in a performance full of grit, desire and no little skill, especially from teenagers Ashton Golding and Jordan Lilley, they looked readied to defeat the revered Kiwis for the first time since 1972.
The tourists then pulled clear with three tries in five minutes, however, as Jesse Bromwich, Dean Whare and the ever-elusive full-back Roger Tuivasa-Sheck took control as they completed their preparations ahead of next Sunday’s first Test against England but, still, it was enthralling to the end.
It used to be commonplace that the likes of Leeds, Castleford, Wigan and St Helens would get their chance against touring teams like this but, since the advent of Super League and internationals occurring at the end of domestic campaigns, such fixtures are now far, far too rare if almost extinct.
The last time Leeds, for instance, played the Kiwis here was in 1993 when Gary Schofield and Jimmy Lowes appeared against a side featuring the likes of Gary Freeman and Sean Hoppe.
But last night’s thrilling game and occasion, attracting a season-best capacity crowd of 20,158, reminded people what they have missing for the best part of three decades.
It was already going to be an emotion-packed night as Leeds, celebrating that historic treble, bade farewell to those legends – current and former given Morley and Lauitiiti returned as “guests” – and marked 125 years since the first game of rugby at the famous stadium.
However, there was further gravitas added to it all by some of the skills on show from the Kiwis, the world’s No 1-ranked team, and the fact Leeds, despite being without seven of their Grand Final winning side, contributed so handsomely to such a showpiece.
If the Kangaroos do ever arrive on these shores to face England or Great Britain or whatever the home nations will then be called, everything needs to be done to somehow re-introduce such contests.
And it was a contest. Leeds, who first played New Zealand here in 1926 going down 13-11, looked like they were just starting their season let alone rounding it off with the manner of their attacking brio and energy early on.
There was some wonderful ball movement and scintillating breaks with young full-back Golding and Tom Briscoe both surging clear, the only disappointment being no tries were garnered.
Leuluai should have signed off in style when he arrowed onto Joel Moon’s pass after the centre had angled infield at pace but, somehow, referee Richard Silverwood ruled it forward.
They were finally rewarded when Danny McGuire – captain with Sinfield limiting his input to a guard-of-honour alongside his fellow departees before kick-off – slid a grubber in for Moon to scramble over in the 26th minute.
Lilley, the 19-year-old scrum-half who showed some lovely touches, converted but the visitors then whirred into life.
The warning was there with a couple of jinky sidesteps from the dancing Tuivasa-Sheck, Isaac Luke injected some pace, their brutish power suddenly came to the fore and, in a flash, Kearney’s side had crossed twice.
Jason Nightingale showed his scoring class after the winger’s earlier break had forced a drop-out and then, just before the interval, Luke’s scurry clear saw debutant centre Jordan Kahu produce a brilliant finish of his own, leaving Josh Walters in his wake before leaping for the corner. Luke converted the first for a 10-6 half-time lead but Golding, showing star quality at just 19, somehow denied Tuivasa-Sheck early in the second period.
It meant the hosts took the lead when fellow teenager Lilley evaded a Kiwi tackle and showed great composure to send Moon over for his second and then nervelessly slot the touchline kick himself.
New Zealand took control with that quickfire treble but Leeds – who saw debutant Anthony Mullally injured in the first half – would not lie down, Golding pouncing on an error to see Lauitiiti send Briscoe in on 69 minutes.
Kodi Nikorima and Tuivasa-Sheck, with his second, eased their nerves once more but it had been an epic battle nevertheless.
Afterwards, New Zealanders Leuluai and Lauitiiti joined their fellow Kiwis to lead a Haka in front of the South Stand before the sides recreated the joint-team picture first taken in 1907 when the All Golds played here.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding; Briscoe, Keinhorst, Moon, Handley; McGuire, Lilley; Leuluai, R Ward, Morley, Walters, Lauitiiti, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Garbutt, Mullally, Singleton, Achurch, Mulhern, Baldwinson.
New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck; Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Doweall; Hiku, Lolohea; Bromwich, Luke, Matulino, Proctor, Harris, Taupau. Substitutes: Nikorima, Blair, Moa, Taukeiaho, Glenn, Brown.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield)