It was difficult to know which was the greater culture shock at Murrayfield yesterday: "Flower of Scotland" in a Yorkshire accent or a rousing ovation for the "effort and hard work" of the Scottish Rugby Football Union in rescuing the game. Not that long ago, anyone mentioning the word "league" within the portals of Scotland's union cathedral would be consigned to life's sin- bin, while the prospect of heading north out of Yorkshire for a cup final would have had the old guard of the RFL blubbing into their Tetley's.
The prelude to this historic conversion was truly biblical, a parting of the Red Seas on Thursday followed by the sound of trumpets and crumbling walls at rugby league's new Jericho. Just a shame the game was, for all bar the last 10 minutes at least, a little short in the thunderbolt and lightning department. More New than Old Testament, in fact, and given the prevailing form of the two sides going into the Silk Cut Challenge Final, decidedly devoid of revelations. The only surprise was that, in losing 24-18, Leeds managed to keep the Yorkshire neighbours within touching distance. Yet the Bulls' attacking superiority always suggested that they would finally capture the game's most illustrious prize.
The appearance of two big screens marked another first for a cup final, and, to be fair, unlike some football grounds, there was no shirking of the gritty issues. A ferocious late tackle by Barrie McDermott of Leeds on Henry Paul in the opening minutes was replayed in full technicolour to the accompanying soundtrack from the Bradford Bulls end. Strangely, McDermott stayed on the field, which was probably a greater punishment than the sin-bin as Paul exacted retribution by kicking the odds-on favourites into the lead.
Rather more absurd was the lengthy hiatus early in the second half when crowd and players turned in obeisance to the big screen to judge the merit of a Stuart Fielden try. Long before the replay official had sent down his tablet of stone, the crowd and players knew the verdict. Moments after Fielden's try had stemmed a belated Leeds recovery, another call for the replay brought further "drama" as Leeds acclaimed their first try. Just as the high-decibel preliminaries allowed neither set of supporters to exercise their own vocal chords, so, in their search for justice and added entertainment, the authorities are coming perilously close to reducing the game to a sideshow.
At least Leeds made a game of it in the second half, because their first-half showing was so inept it teetered on the edge of embarrassment, notably when two Leeds players, under no pressure, went to catch a missed penalty from Henry Paul behind their posts. These, remember, were the defending champions. "Five minutes to half-time" intoned the man on the PA system, presumably in an attempt to stop the Leeds fans from catching the early train south. If Leeds did manage to come within striking distance of the Bulls line, they contrived to lose the ball, while the opposing stand-off, Henry Paul, conducted affairs with barely disguised disdain, pulling the right of the Leeds defence to pieces with a series of wicked high kicks into the corner. Both the Bulls' opening two tries stemmed from up 'n' unders.
In fact, the Bulls barely had to engage third gear to open up a healthy 14-2 half-time lead which would have been terminal had Henry, the elder and stockier of the New Zealand brothers, not mislaid his goalkicking boots. By the time Leeds had cottoned on to the correct tactics, sticking the ball in the air at every opportunity and harnessing the mercurial talents of Iestyn Harris, not even the Bulls, notably nervy on the big occasion, could contrive to lose the plot. Another interminable series of replays prefaced the try by Marcus St Hilaire which brought Leeds back to within six points, but a decisive turnover deep in the Leeds half set up a final penalty, which ended the holders' resistance.
Long before the Bulls had finished their elaborate celebrations, the Leeds fans had headed back to their heartlands. Their season needs rescuing; the Bulls might yet turn into a dominant replica of the Wigan of the Nineties. In the Paul brothers, they have players of the highest class, in the twin try-scorer Michael Withers a devastating runner.
Leeds' season was epitomised by the display of Leroy Rivett, a controversial choice on the wing, who was torn to shreds defensively in the first half. When, belatedly, he did get a chance to run, he immediately slipped over on to his face. A year ago, he was running in four tries against the London Broncos at a sunlit Wembley and living a dream.Reuse content