Now that dust has settled following last Saturday night’s Grand Final, we can take a look back at a season that ended with Leeds upsetting the odds and their West Yorkshire rivals Castleford to claim an eighth Super League title. However, the 2017 season was far from plain sailing.
While Leeds were not expected to end their year with another win on a rainy October night at Old Trafford, they knew that a repeat of the 2016 season, which saw them in the Qualifiers and battling relegation, would not be acceptable. Brian McDermott has spoken a lot recently of “difficult conversations” he held with Rhinos CEO Gary Hetherington that made it clear the pressure was on the coach and his staff to deliver, otherwise their jobs would be under threat.
The start to the season was uninspiring, although 2 wins from their opening 3 matches was already a better record than that of 12 months earlier, and most fans were just happy to see Leeds get a few wins under their belt early on, no matter how they came, to ease any nerves of another slow start.
It wasn’t until the round 4 meeting with Castleford at the Jungle that concerns over how strong Leeds were and how much they had progressed from the previous season emerged. The 66-10 loss was not only an embarrassing and painful night, but a huge setback for a team who were looking to show they were capable of competing with the best sides in Super League again, yet had already lost to St. Helens and Castleford. It highlighted, if it wasn’t already obvious, the gap in quality between the high-flying Tigers and a team who were at the beginning of a rebuilding process.
That was the closest McDermott came to the sack as it prompted CEO Hetherington, who was clearly aware of some unhappiness within the fanbase, to email supporters stating that the coach effectively had four games to save his job. This was rare for Hetherington, who usually doesn’t go so public about such big matters at the Rhinos, but it hinted there was worry over the direction the club was heading.
The reaction to that was good and those four games, which included two more derbies and a clash with champions Wigan, were all won comfortably meaning McDermott’s job was safe and Leeds’ season was back on track.
From that point, inconsistency was the Rhinos main problem. For example, high scoring wins over Hull FC and Widnes were sandwiched between losses to winless Warrington and Huddersfield who, at the time, sat in the bottom two. It was defeats like those that prevented Leeds from building up any momentum and a record of 5 losses in just 11 games between round 9 and round 19 was possibly the reason behind why very few considered them as serious challengers.
Of course, there were some performances that proved Leeds had it in them to put on a show. The aforementioned win at Hull FC’s KCOM stadium, which finished 24-52, and the 40-0 crushing of Warrington at Headingley in which hooker, and arguably the signing of the season, Matt Parcell scored a hat-trick were the stand out results of the regular season.
Unfortunately, though, those dominant displays didn’t come around often enough. 12 of Leeds’ 20 wins across the regular rounds and Super 8’s came with a winning margin of 18 points or less, and 9 of those were by a margin of 8 points or less.
During this period the Rhinos had also made progress in the Challenge Cup, thanks in part to a generous draw, after beating part-timers Doncaster and Barrow. The Cup was also the platform for exciting youngster Jack Walker, who scored a first half hat-trick on debut against Doncaster, to burst onto the scene and provide Ashton Golding with serious competition for the first team fullback slot.
Despite suffering a third defeat of the season to Castleford the week after securing a place in the Challenge Cup semi-finals, the Rhinos began to find form ahead of the ‘business end’ of the season. 5 wins from 7, with the other loss coming in round 23 at Wigan when a massively under-strength side was fielded ahead of the cup-semi, brought the regular season to an end, with Leeds sitting comfortably in second place.
Being dumped out of the Challenge Cup by Hull FC was another low point of the season, and one that caused doubt over how Leeds would cope with a Grand Final qualifier should they remain in the top 4. But, another strong reaction to a heavy defeat was to follow as a 32-16 win over Wigan got the Super 8’s campaign off to the perfect start.
A heavy loss at Wakefield brought the mood down, but Leeds bounced back again as they said goodbye to the South Stand with a narrow win over St. Helens, and followed it up with a revenge job on Hull FC as the ‘Airlie Birds’, yet again, came out second best at Headingley.
The tenth and final loss of the season came at League Leaders’ Shield winners Castleford and, oddly, led to some positivity due to a spirited second half effort. The players clearly took confidence from that match as they made easy work of their last two Super 8 fixtures, scoring 80 points and conceding just 14 as they brushed aside Salford and Huddersfield, setting them up nicely for the Grand Final qualifier with Hull FC.
It was then when we were reminded that the Rhinos are the masters at play-off rugby league and producing their best performances of the year in late September and early October. Hull FC, cup winners for two straight years so no strangers to knock-out rugby, were stopped from playing the aggressive and fast paced style they like to as Leeds won the battle of the forwards, and although they weren’t clinical enough in attack to make the win a little easier, saw the game through to reach a record equalling tenth Grand Final.
A fifth meeting of the season with Castleford awaited them at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, and although the Tigers had beaten them four times in 2017 already, the Leeds squad had plenty of experience of playing and winning at Old Trafford which made for an interesting matchup. It was a case of saving the best until last for Leeds, who, led by departing captain Danny McGuire, expertly managed the Grand Final as they thwarted Castleford with a determined defensive effort and took their chances to seal a brilliant 24-6 win and another Super League crown.
The win for Leeds brings a fairy tale end to what has been a difficult two years. To go from battling relegation in the Middle 8’s to Super League champions in just a year is a special achievement by anybody’s standards, but even more so for Leeds who, once more, have proved doubters wrong after being written off.
It also gives a special send-off to club legends Danny McGuire, who moves onto Hull KR, and Rob Burrow, who is retiring to take up a role in the Leeds backroom staff. The pair have amassed a combined total of 916 appearances and 463 tries for the club they came through the academy ranks at, and leave as the joint most successful players ever to have appeared in the blue and amber jersey.
It is important the Rhinos now show they have learnt from 2016 to avoid another slide down the league table after the departure of two stalwarts of the team. The recruitment, so far, has been credible and there are players within the squad, such as Stevie Ward and Brad Singleton who, as well as already being a part of the club’s winning culture, are blossoming into leaders which should help Leeds to cope better with the changes.