AS LEEDS RHINOS said ‘goodbye’ to two of their all-time legends on their last outing at Headingley last night, it was one of their next generation who came up with the winning score to send them into yet another Grand Final.
Captain Danny McGuire – after a lifetime at Leeds, playing his 450th career game and final Rhinos match at the old ground before moving to Hull KR – led his side once more alongside fellow veteran Rob Burrow who will retire at the end of the season.
However, for all they have each won countless games for the West Yorkshire club since debuting in 2001, it was Liam Sutcliffe, the 22-year-old stand-off who has carved out a niche at centre this season, who came to the fore in an epic battle with Hull FC.
Leeds had seen a 12-0 lead disintegrate as Challenge Cup holders Hull FC – who defeated them in the Challenge Cup semi-final on the way to Wembley – surged back to take a 16-12 lead in the 56th minute.
But their lead lasted all of six minutes as Sutcliffe, shaking off Albert Kelly and then turning Jamie Shaul inside out, scrambled over.
Kallum Watkins maintained his 100 per cent record with the boot and dogged Leeds bravely held on to set up a meeting with League Leaders’ Shield winners Castleford Tigers next Saturday, the first all-Yorkshire Grand Final since Bradford beat Rhinos in 2005.
Defeat was tough on retiring Gareth Ellis, the inspirational Hull captain who, having won Grand Finals with Leeds, hoped to round off a remarkable career by delivering the Airlie Birds a first-ever double.
In the end, though, Lee Radford’s side were made to pay for a poor start which finally caught up with them and their 10-year losing run at Headingley continues.
The only downside for Leeds, with Carl Ablett making his 300th club appearance, was a shoulder injury to Stevie Ward which looks likely to jeopardise his chances of playing next week.
Brad Singleton was outstanding for them, the Cumbrian forward thinking he had clinched it earlier following a diagonal 20m charge.
He took three defenders over the line with him, though, and referee Phil Bentham, uncertain of its validity, ruled ‘no try’ before asking the video referee Robert Hicks to adjudicate.
After an interminable wait – four minutes – he finally decided he could not award a try either, Jamie Shaul’s arm seemed to prevent Singleton grounding.
Hull quickly capitalised on their let-off. Just two minutes later, Marc Sneyd launched a kick and the excellent Jake Connor again produced a moment of class, flicking back for Sika Manu to score.
Sneyd converted to put Hull ahead for the first time in the game but it was not enough.
In fairness, given the insipid start Hull made to the game, they would have been delighted at trailing just 12-6 at the break.
At times early on, they looked like they were playing a pre-season friendly, not seeking to get to the definitive last 80 minutes of the entire campaign.
Looking flat-flooted in defence and attack, ill-disciplined and making numerous slack errors, they only served to invite Leeds in.
Leeds did not need any invite, either; Brian McDermott’s side were clearly ready for this contest, charging out of the blocks with strength, zeal and no little alacrity.
They were 12-0 up inside 23 minutes and really it should have been more.
Granted, they were given a helping hand by Liam Watts, the Hull prop whose tendency to play on the edge has caused him some issues this season.
Here, he charged late at McGuire’s standing leg after the veteran had kicked ahead in the fourth minute. It was dangerous and the Leeds player, understandably, reacted.
From the penalty 20m out, second-row Ward slalomed his way to the line next to the Hull posts swatting off three defenders, including Danny Houghton, with alarming ease.
Watkins improved and McGuire thought he had slipped Singleton over, too, but was rightly brought back for a forward pass.
However, with Hull self-destructing – Mahe Fonua bundled into touch, Watts forcing an ill-conceived off-load, Kelly being forced back behind his own line when he should have gone to ground – another try was always likely.
McGuire, typically, was the instigator, darting back on the inside on the last tackle to create some space to put Anthony Mullally charging through untouched although Connor and Manu were both guilty of shirt-grabbing.
Watkins converted again and Hull did not even manage possession in Leeds’s half until the second quarter.
Crucially, after Watkins denied Kelly with a wonderful tackle, they did make it pay.
McGuire caught Mark Minichiello as the Australian second-row threatened to find some space and, soon after, Ellis angled back on one of his trademark charges to hit Houghton’s dummy-half pass and bully his way over.
Sneyd added the goal and they returned for the second period clearly with more vigour and application.
Radford’s side got the start they wanted. Connor brought the class yet again, the ex-Huddersfield centre holding Burrow at bay with one hand and flicking an overhand pass to his winger Fonua, who made his last appearance before joining Wests Tigers.
Unfortunately for his side, it was not the definitive moment and, instead, Leeds can now look to send Burrow and McGuire off with an eighth Super League title.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker; Briscoe, Watkins, Sutcliffe, Hall; Moon, McGuire; Singleton, Parcell, Garbutt, Ward, Jones-Buchanan, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Ablett, Burrow, Mullally, Ferres.
Hull FC: Shaul; Fonua, Connor, Tuimavave, Talanoa; Kelly, Sneyd; taylor, Houghton, Watts, Minichello, Manu. Ellis. Substitutes: Griffin, Green, Bowden, Fash.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).