Leeds Rhinos have the form to win the Super League Grand Final from fifth position, but even by their own standards, you will witness the climax of that story at Old Trafford next Saturday.
It’s hard to fathom what seemed more likely six months ago: the prospect of the Rhinos getting anywhere near the Grand Final this year, or if any of their fans even knew who was the man who would eventually get them back into the biggest game of the year.
It’s been less than a year since Rohan Smith coached the Norths Devils in the Queensland Cup. His appointment in April was shrugged off by Leeds fans given how little people knew about him. Thirteen wins in 18 games later, a last-ditch defensive effort to hand Wigan their first home defeat of the season at the worst time, and Leeds are one win away from a record ninth Super League name.
This one, given they were just one point off the bottom of the table when Smith was appointed in April, would be the most remarkable of all. Smith has orchestrated a turnaround that not even the most optimistic Leeds fan could have predicted just a few months ago. And how they earned it here with one of the most gutsy and gutsy efforts you’re likely to see in a playoff game. With stories like these, no matter who you support, you believe that anything is possible.
“It’s a pretty special moment to be here,” Smith said afterward. “I have a great privilege. Every team and every club goes through a lot of things every year, but I really respect my players. The players set themselves the task of moving to Old Trafford before the season, and everything worked out.”
Such a result looked impossible for a long period of the first half, which was dominated by Wigan. But at the interval, all they had to show for it was a Liam Marshall try and in response, Leeds weathered the storm and replied with a Zach Hardeker penalty. They were two behind but would undoubtedly have been the happier of both sides given the immense pressure they had to absorb on their line. What happened after the break was hard to believe.
You’d suspect Leeds would win given the defensive work they had to endure. Instead, they have come out stronger, with the faith and confidence Smith instilled in a group of players written off at various points earlier in the year. By the time Wigan scored again through Sam Powell in the closing minutes, Leeds had racked up 18 points of their own without reply to book their place at Old Trafford.
“It’s not easy,” said Matt Peat, who suffered the defeat against WIgan. “But I thought Leeds were excellent, worthy winners and deserved to be in the final. It’s not that things went wrong for us, it’s that things went right for Leeds.” Defeat here is a disappointing way to end a year that began with success in the Challenge Cup, but as Pete pointed out after the match, Leeds were worthy winners.
Minutes after the restart they took the lead for the first time when Jarrad O’Connor dived in from dummy half and three minutes later James Bentley latched on to Aidan Sezer’s deft strike. Any notion of a Wigan comeback was eradicated when John Bateman was sent off for a high tackle on Sezer, and at that point you felt Leeds had done enough.
Bentley then put the icing on the cake with his second five minutes from time and by the time Powell went over for a last-minute consolation try, the party among the 4,000 traveling Leeds fans was already well underway. They will be at Old Trafford next week no matter what. Who will be against them now?