“Good without being brilliant” was how retiring Rhinos legend Rob Burrow summed up Leeds, a statement that almost perfectly describes everything about the Rhinos in 2017.
Despite finishing second in the league, the Rhinos have come in for a lot of criticism due to several lacklustre performances, a couple of heavy defeats and, for Leeds fans at least, a frustrating inconsistency. There have been times where Leeds have been guilty of being predictable and looking a little lost on the field, and it’s for those reasons that very few gave the seven-time Super League winners a chance of even reaching yet another Grand Final.
However, after coming through their tight semi-final against Hull FC last Friday, the Rhinos will be returning to Old Trafford to attempt to reclaim the Super League crown they last won in 2015. Brian McDermott’s side face a huge challenge in Castleford, who have already beaten them four times this season, but breaking the hoodoo that has developed when it comes to playing the Tigers would be the perfect way for Leeds to turn what has so far been an average year into one to remember.
Ahead of the campaign, the targets and expectations for it weren’t clear. A club of Leeds’ stature should always be challenging for trophies, but after a nightmarish 2016, stability was probably the priority. Getting back into the Super 8’s and a good cup run was a realistic aim, albeit a little underwhelming.
A sluggish start which saw Leeds narrowly lose at St. Helens on opening night, squeeze past newly promoted Leigh and then beat Salford in controversial circumstances was compounded when they visited Grand Final opponents Castleford, who took the Rhinos apart with relative ease in a 66-10 defeat. Although Leeds won four games in a row after that, it took a while for them to move on and get away from that result, and for a while it threatened to become the defining moment of their 2017.
The middle part of the season then failed to ever get going. The Loiners lost five games between round 9 and round 19, including a 12-31 home defeat to struggling Huddersfield and an exasperating loss to, at the time, bottom of the league Widnes, and in that time also never managed to string together more than two consecutive wins. At that point, it was difficult to see how Leeds would mount a challenge if they couldn’t iron out the obvious kinks in the system.
From there, though, a good run was put together. Five of seven games to end the regular season were won and then that was repeated in the Super 8’s as Leeds won all but two of their games as they secured a second-place finish and therefore a home semi-final. There were a few disheartening moments, such as the 38-6 drubbing at Wakefield, and the rugby being played wasn’t particularly eye-catching, but crucially some form had been found ahead of the ‘crunch’ time of the year.
That form and momentum that had been built up proved to be enough to battle past Challenge Cup winners Hull FC in the Grand Final qualifier. The win wasn’t pretty, but it showed the Rhinos have not lost the knack of grinding out results in the games that matter after some had questioned their ability to do so after their cup semi-final collapse, which will only have increased confidence.
As we know, the Rhinos haven’t had it all their own way this season and have had to overcome some obstacles, but now the Grand Final looms and the task of getting the tactics right to stop Castleford is very much the focus. There has been disgruntlement from a sizeable portion of Leeds fans, many of whom weren’t happy with the transfer business done, the quality of rugby they were watching, some of the arguably avoidable defeats and more. But, you can guarantee that all of that would be forgiven if departing captain Danny McGuire holds aloft the Super League trophy at around 8pm this Saturday evening.
Nothing about the Grand Final will be easy for Leeds. The Tigers will be determined to ensure a new named is engraved onto the trophy and it will take a huge effort to stop them from doing so, but if Leeds can use their previous wins at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to pull something out of the bag and come away victorious, then this Old Trafford triumph would not only make this season a success, but would most likely be the sweetest win of them all.