A few days on from British rugby league’s biggest night, I will have a look at those who had good and bad nights on the biggest stage of all as Leeds Rhinos won their eighth title against League Leaders’ Shield winners Castleford Tigers on a rain-sodden evening at Old Trafford.
Putting Luke Gale’s recovery from an appendix operation into the shadows was Stevie Ward’s herculean effort to get fit for the Grand Final just eight days after dislocating his shoulder in the semi final victory against Hull FC at Headingley on Friday night. After openly admitting to struggles with depression after being ruled out of the 2015 final due to injury, Ward has said that he was considering his future in the sport while sitting in a hospital bed last weekend, looking down the barrel of missing another big event. He has been a huge part of Leeds’ success this season and, after one nurse said that he had a chance of playing on Saturday night, he made his mind up and told Brian McDermott he would be ready. Not that the Leeds coach let on at all until he named his 19 man squad on Thursday. Was it mind games? No. Instead, the Leeds-born number 13 played all 80 minutes in his usual dynamic and committed manner. Nobody can begrudge this man his winners’ ring and international honours can’t be far away. Nor, it is being argued by many, can the vacant Rhinos captain’s armband for the 2018 season onwards.
When he was announced as being the man in the middle for the Grand Final, social media and journalists alike seemed to start questioning the decision to give James Child the biggest game of all. Justifiably so, one would argue, after what could be described as a poor season with the whistle. Strange calls and decisions seemed to blight his matches this season but, after possibly his best game in the semi final between Castleford and St Helens, including the huge (but correct) call to give the Tigers an 80th minute penalty, he perhaps followed that with an even better performance. For a referee known to give a lot of penalties in his matches, a concern of the fans before the match, he was set on letting Saturday’s game flow. He didn’t fall for Castleford’s attempts to buy penalties at the ruck and instead ensured that any errors made were by the players who found handling conditions very difficult. Saying all this, his awarding of Tom Briscoe’s second try to make it 15-0 was clearly incorrect as it looked to be a good two or three yards forward. However, this is a forgivable mistake as referees can’t be expected to get everything right – but Child got most things right. While the game wasn’t a spectacle, he definitely did his best to let it run and the fact it wasn’t easy on the eye was much more down to the weather and players than the man in the middle.
Brian McDermott and Danny McGuire
Written off over the past two years, both Leeds’ coach and captain will be walking tall this week after a superb night for the pair of them.
McDermott has, at times, been very unpopular with Leeds fans over the past few years but none more so than at the start of this season. After a poor opening, the 66-10 defeat at Castleford seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back; Leeds fans were turning and McDermott has openly admitted to having difficult conversations with both his team and the board after that. Boldly and, to some, ridiculously he stated in his post match interview that he would get this Leeds team to the Grand Final and he was good to his word. He has managed this team superbly this season and, unlike Cas, they peaked at just the right time, saving some of their best performances for the Super 8s. In fact, if just the Super 8s games were taken into account, Leeds would have finished top of the table. McDermott now, surely, has won Leeds fans over and he may well have the job as long as he wishes now – and so he should.
Danny McGuire, in 2016, was Leeds’ full time captain for the first time yet he wasn’t able to get into the swing of it due to injuries as Leeds struggled into the Middle 8s. Survival, though, was guaranteed and McGuire has been pretty much an ever present this season. Over the course of 2017, his kicking game developed as did his new half back partnership with Joel Moon. Between the two of them, they guided Leeds into the Super 8s and, eventually, to the Grand Final and, as good as Moon’s performance on Saturday was it was definitely McGuire’s stage.
In his final performance in the blue and amber, McGuire delivered a performance that rolled back the years and left Leeds fans questioning why they are letting him go. Two tries, one assist, two drop goals and a try saving tackle in the first half saw him win the Harry Sunderland trophy for the man of the match and his exemplary kicking display guided the Rhinos around the pitch and simply didn’t let Castleford get going. It was a fitting way for a true Leeds legend to depart the stage.
This week has seen the announcement of the full back’s misdemeanours and, while it isn’t shocking and sympathy perhaps shouldn’t be held, a thought must be spared for Hardaker who will be regretting his decisions. He knows he has let his team down and, while his inclusion may not have affected the outcome on Saturday night, it may well have been a different game. Would Hardaker have dropped the high kick that Greg Eden failed to catch which led to Danny McGuire’s first try? Possibly not. Would his inclusion have given Castleford more of an edge by allowing Eden to stay on the left wing? Probably. No doubt that, if Hardaker had been watching, he will have experienced two hours of painful viewing knowing that he has let down his teammates and it may now be a while until we see him playing rugby again with a possible two year drugs ban coming his way. It is a shame as his ability is without question but, right now, he really does need somebody strong to put an arm round his shoulder and get him professional help to quash his problems as, otherwise, he will never pick up a Super League rugby ball again.
All season he has spoken with pride and confidence in his team but, on Saturday, Daryl Powell cut something of a forlorn figure both during the match and in his post match interviews. It is a shame that, in the sport of rugby league, the winners of the League Leaders’ Shield don’t get more credit than they do because Castleford have been, without doubt, the outstanding team of this season after winning the league by a record margin. But Powell’s men let him down on Saturday. They weren’t able to play their usual game and, whether that be down to the weather conditions or choking on the biggest stage of all, they will need to work on that in the future. Brian McDermott knows how to prepare his team to win big games and Powell needs to learn how to do that if he is to truly make it to the top of the game as, while nobody doubts his coaching ability, he needs to win big games to be a big coach. It would have been an interesting game had Castleford been on form but, as it was, Leeds found it very straightforward to win on Saturday and the Tigers’ coach needs to ready his team to be able to play in such big matches next season.
Saturday night was a game where neutrals and rugby league purists had their fingers and toes crossed for a Castleford win. The best team and Grand Final novices against the Leeds Rhinos who, barring those from the city, were definitely not the team the masses were hoping to see win the trophy. The weather, arguably, ruined the game as a spectacle with the pouring rain causing both teams to make handling errors aplenty which, especially in the case of the Tigers, saw a struggle to build pressure, pressure which is key for their style of play. On many occasions this season, Castleford have scored their tries in twos, threes or fours in short spells. A combination of errors and the Rhinos gameplan to spoil the Tigers’ usual game saw to those spells not coming off and, as such, saw a very tactical game dominated by those in blue and amber. The Grand Final is rarely a spectacle but even this game was one of the poorest in terms of entertainment – unless you were supporting the Rhinos.