IN THE summer era, think Challenge Cup semi-final heroes and there are few more synonymous players than Leeds Rhinos’ Danny McGuire.
When it comes to plotting the crucial, final step to Wembley – or Cardiff, previously – the mercurial half-back certainly has a fascinating history of being in the right place at the right time.
Indeed, McGuire’s almost innate ability to come up with a killer play in such encounters could almost be the deciding reason why his side are slight favourites to edge past holders Hull FC in this afternoon’s much-anticipated showdown at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.
At the age of 34, his defence-splitting talent now may be more via an astute pass or telling kick rather than his famous electric pace but he remains a potential matchwinner nonetheless.
Ever since, dummying over in the last seconds against St Helens as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in 2003 to help send an epic semi-final into extra-time at Huddersfield, McGuire has thrived under such pressure.
He of course went on to produce a stunning solo effort, too, that day to get Leeds to the Millennium Stadium where, in a bitter blow for the youngster, he was omitted from the matchday squad by coach Daryl Powell.
To this day, Powell – now in charge at Super League leaders Castleford – calls it one of the toughest decisions of his career.
But resilient McGuire was to the fore again in 2010 when, in coming from behind again versus Saints and once more in Huddersfield, he scored the 200th try of his career swiftly followed by his 201st try as Leeds ended their 11-year wait for a trip to Wembley.
Two years later, McGuire was not actually on the scoresheet in a 39-28 triumph over Wigan, Huddersfield yet again the scene, but his creative mastery underpinned an authoritative victory.
In 2014, the former Great Britain star had a hand in three of Rhinos’ four tries as they beat Warrington at St Helens this time.
McGuire crossed twice in 2005 against Toulouse although, admittedly, his rampant hometown club did not need him at his very best that day against the French underdogs. When Leeds reached Wembley in 2011, Super League’s record try-scorer was central to the decisive moment in a far closer game, Castleford’s Ryan McGoldrick felling him with a contentious high-tackle to give Kevin Sinfield the chance to kick the extra-time golden point winner at Doncaster.
Of course, they then lost in the final, just as they did the year before and would do again 12 months later, allied to defeats in both 2003 and 2005.
But Leeds at last got it right when beating Castleford in the 2014 final, McGuire inevitably delivering with a try and – despite three broken ribs that left him hospitalised – a reassuring drop-goal in a famous 23-10 success that ended years of heartache.
It was backed up 12 months later with a record-breaking 50-0 final win against Hull KR. Now McGuire is intent on extending that run.
“Semi-finals have been really kind to me,” he admitted, when talking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s game.
“For a while there the final was the heartache. But the semis were always great occasions. We played a few at Huddersfield and at Doncaster where we face Hull now.
“It’s an exciting time and a game I’m really looking forward to.
“Without a doubt, we’ve had a taste of it all and want to get back.
“We had a lot of not so good memories in this competition but were able to turn that around with those two wins.
“I know how good it feels to win semi-finals and then get to the final and win as well.
“It’ll be added motivation to go play well on Saturday.”
If he needed any extra – and a player of such indefatigable spirit never does – it is that this is also the final year of his remarkable Leeds Rhinos odyssey.
McGuire announced earlier this month that, after spending his entire career in blue and amber, he will join Hull KR in 2018.
That is sure to see Hull fans target him more than usual this afternoon but, conversely, what an opportunity to endear himself to Robins fans early by knocking out their fierce city rivals this afternoon.
“It’s all good; in the battle it is what it is,” said McGuire, on that expected ‘banter’ from FC fans.
“And I’m sure if we can beat Hull and I can play well it can get the Rovers fans on side before I start over there.
“That’ll be something I’ll be looking to do. But I’m not really thinking about next year yet. What’s in front of me is playing well for Leeds and performing for the rest of the season; that’s my main focus at the moment.”
Given he is now captain after the legendary Kevin Sinfield’s departure two years ago, lifting the Challenge Cup – or Super League trophy – would undoubtedly be a fitting way to bow out of his beloved Leeds.
But first McGuire, back after resting a slight hamstring strain against Wigan last week, knows his side must be wary of Albert Kelly, the prodigious Australian stand-off who is set to return for the Airlie Birds.
McGuire said: “He’s been very good for them; he’s a bit of maverick who plays a lot of off-the-cuff stuff and is a very dangerous player with the ball in hand.
“If they do have him back it’ll definitely add an extra dimension to Hull.
“They have a big, solid pack and are a very good team so we know we’re in for a tough game.
“They are probably not playing as well as they did last year but then again at points they have been very good, too.
“They’ve beaten Cas twice so that’s no mean feat and getting Gareth Ellis back last week is a big positive for them.
“We’ll give them the respect they deserve.
“Across the board they are strong but if we turn up and play to our potential we’ll be right there with them.”